The more you know about the Lewis Carroll classics "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass," the more you'll get out of Pittsburgher James Michael Shoberg's dark, contemporary stage adaptation.
Where: Rage of the Stage Players at The Brew House, 2100 Mary Street, South Side.
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Tickets: $10; 412-851-0922.
It's not just that writer-director-producer Shoberg spins the children's classic in a dark, dangerous urban underground, or that in theme, language and presentation it's strictly adults only. Each of the play's 22 dysfunctional characters -- including a naive Catholic schoolgirl, a randy skate punk, a manipulative pimp, a bipolar homeless woman, a violent crackhead, a whip-wielding dominatrix and a sadistic pedophile -- bears a subtle physical and psychological resemblance to Carroll's original cast. Identifying them is a hoot.
Some of the situations are funny, too, if callous sex references and mental health or addiction issues make you laugh. But Shoberg's journey down the rabbit hole -- actually, a detour through a broken alley pallet -- takes a dark turn that grows increasingly darker. The wry, decadent, streetwise humor of the madcap first act plunges in Act 2 into increasingly uncomfortable perversity. Absent comic relief, the implied thematic horror and obscenity suggested at the end of a cleverly staged curtain call left me feeling drained, dirty and emotionally unfulfilled. Maybe that's what Shoberg's going for. To be honest, I don't know.
I know sharp, vibrant acting when I see it, however, and "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" is full of it. Skylar Oliphant Walton gives his sleazy White Rabbit all the arrogance and scheming pomposity of a dirty, urban miscreant. John Graham's Jack of Hearts pimp carries all the stylized grace of a Fosse dancer, and Heather Lynn McNeish puts on a weirdly funny Mad Hatter puppet show. Amadeo Fusca is riveting as a dangerous Cheshire drug addict, Alyssa Herron offers a commanding performance as the Queen of an S&M club, and Robert Henry reeks of creepy perversion in a show-stopping role. While several cast members were strong in supporting roles, Stephanie Figer was curiously two-dimensional in the title role, alternating from vacantly naive to petulant to screechingly terrified when more nuanced reactions may have been more fitting.
Fittingly staged by Rage of the Stage Players at The Brew House, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" is tailor made for the young, hip, adventurous wing of the Pittsburgh theater crowd. Add entrepreneur to Shoberg's long list of titles. This is his baby from start to finish, and he deserves a standing ovation for pulling it off.
John Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1991.