REVIEW: Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati's ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Sends Audiences Down Whimsical Rabbit Hole

It might be Christmastime, but a different type of magic is gracing the stage at Over-the-Rhine’s Ensemble Theatre.

click to enlarge From Left: Michael G. Bath as White Rabbit; Sara Mackie as  Mad Hatter; Deej Ragusa  as Alice; in back, Deb G. Girdler as Queen of Hearts and Kenneth Early as Caterpillar/Butterfly. - Ryan Kurtz
Ryan Kurtz
From Left: Michael G. Bath as White Rabbit; Sara Mackie as Mad Hatter; Deej Ragusa as Alice; in back, Deb G. Girdler as Queen of Hearts and Kenneth Early as Caterpillar/Butterfly.
Local playwright Joseph McDonough — with music and lyrics by Cincinnati composer David Kisor — has written this modern retelling of Lewis Carroll’s classic nonsensical novel, Alice in Wonderland.

Though reimagined for the present day, Alice in Wonderland wastes no time jumping down the rabbit hole from the familiar into the fantastical and downright illogical world of Wonderland.

Portrayed by Deej Ragusa, 12-year-old Alice has a classic preteen fight with her mom and promptly wishes herself away into Wonderland before being whisked deeper into the strange new place. Driven by her tenacious curiosity and egged on by the loony creatures that call Wonderland home, Alice mixes their logic with her own steadfast opinions. She finds herself both in and out of a series of increasingly dangerous circumstances.

As expected, the production is fun; filled with tongue-in-cheek humor and fanciful characters, it keeps both adults and children entertained. The bright, colorful and exceptionally creative costumes, designed by Reba Senske — with wigs and makeup by Kelly Yurko — are enough to dazzle children. Meanwhile, McDonough’s sharp comedic timing and complex wordplay keeps the adults in the audience invested.

Ensemble’s audience for the opening night performance was filled mostly with adults — a little strange for a child-oriented show. But the few children that did attend the production filled the space with precious giggles and awed gasps that brought some extra magic.

Another element that lent magic to Wonderland was undoubtedly the stunning, modern set designed by Brian c. Mehring, who also designed the lighting. Composed of sharp lines and moving parts, the surprisingly utilitarian set introduced shocking pops of red that stood out against starkly black-and-white checkerboard flooring. At first glance, this set the tone of the show wonderfully. The actors used every inch of the glossy set, too; at times they climbed on ladders that later became walls or that morphed into trees or even the bars of a lonely jail cell.

But in this take on Wonderland, it’s really the Cheshire Cat’s show. Played brilliantly by Brooke Steele, the ever-grinning character slinks around the stage, which adds an extra bit of flair to each scene she’s in. Steele envelops herself in such subtle yet consuming cat-like mannerisms that, at times, it’s quite easy to believe one is watching the real Cheshire Cat slyly slip into reality.

Another breakout performance to note is that of Sara Mackie, who portrays the Mad Hatter. With impeccable comedic timing delivered both by her and her animal companions, the Dormouse (Andrew Maloney) and the March Hare (Darnell Pierre Benjamin), the Hatter’s maniacal energy infused each scene and brought some levity to the madness.

From the delightful warbled singing delivered by the Queen of Hearts (Deb G. Girdler) to the frantic yet commanding performance of the White Rabbit (Michael G. Bath), the entire cast is committed to the lunacy of Wonderland. And the cast’s full commitment — not only to their characters, but also to the off-kilter and fantastical world build by Carroll and reshaped by McDonough — was central to the production’s success. Despite the stage adaption having some pacing issues, it was partially fixed by the solid performances and strong direction given by D. Lynn Meyers.

Perhaps the weakness in the script keeps this production of Alice in Wonderland from being a complete success, despite its technical excellence and fabulous performances. Though the pacing is a little quick — and several key scenes lack the proper context or motivation for adult audiences to stay fully immersed in the production — Ensemble’s Wonderland is an undeniably whimsical and grand experience. For the families that are able to splurge for their children, Wonderland is sure to inspire awe.

 Alice in Wonderland runs through Dec. 30 at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati (1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine). More info/tickets: