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Down the rabbit hole

Teen theater academy presents original musical, ''Twas Brillig'

Doors that open to alternate universes. People who speak in confounding riddles, and a queen whose whims can be deadly. Sound a little like "Alice in Wonderland"? It is. And it isn't.

Welcome to "'Twas Brillig," the second production staged by teen drama academy, A Theatre Near U. Comprised of teens from Palo Alto and surrounding communities, the group wowed San Francisco audiences last year at its debut performance of the original indie-rock musical, "Body of Water." That show caught the attention of San Francisco theater critics and was nominated for a San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle award.

This year, the company is showcasing its talents closer to home. Inspired by Lewis Carroll's tale of the girl who falls down a rabbit hole and discovers a strange new world, "'Twas Brillig" is another original musical, with a script by company director Tony Kienitz and musical score by recent Palo Alto High School graduates Emil Ernström and Andrew Lu. With a cast of 18 teenagers from 11 schools and a crew of almost as many, the show has drawn together some of the region's most gifted and ambitious theater students. The show runs at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts' Second Stage theater through June 27.

Unlike most high school theater productions, membership and casting for A Theatre Near U are done by personal invitation rather than audition, and the shows are shaped around the personalities and gifts of the teens involved.

"One of the benefits of working this way is that you can tailor each part to the person you hope will play it," explained Kienitz, who, along with his wife, Tanna Herr, has been leading youth theater programs in the region for the past eight years, and who launched A Theatre Near U after repeated requests from students. Furthermore, he said, writing an original show means there's room for adaptation throughout the rehearsal process.

"If something doesn't work, we cut the lines, change it and rearrange it," he said. "Kids don't usually get to see that process in their school productions, so it's educational. They can say to me, 'I hate that line,' and I say, 'I love it,' and we fight back and forth. They usually win."

Though Kienitz described "'Twas Brillig" as "a farcical, absurdist comedy musical," the show also carries a powerful message, one that's particularly relevant to today's teens.

"We started by saying, 'OK, so what are we dealing with as teenagers?'" Kienitz said. "We watched them on Instagram and the Internet, following boys, talking about celebrities like Kardashian -- you know, the stuff that's really pervasive and that's also really shallow."

From there, Kienitz crafted a world where preoccupation with appearance has skewed society almost beyond recognition, and a loss of popularity can be deadly.

Having stepped through a doorway to the land of Wonder, Mary Pickett finds herself trapped in a world obsessed with beauty and celebrity, one where crazed citizens dish gossip as they eagerly await the coronation of a new queen, an occasion of much pomp and circumstance known as Brillig.

Among this year's cast members is Atticus Shaindlin, a 17-year-old high school junior from San Mateo who is home-schooled. Kienitz and Herr heard of his acting talents through friends and sought him out for this production.

"I play Theo, who is kind of a reincarnation of the Mad Hatter," explained Shaindlin. "It's the first time I've been part of the creation of a new show."

Shaindlin's investment in his role shone through during dress rehearsal as he strutted the stage, directing a film crew while his entourage scurried behind him. Tall and blond with piercing eyes, elastic facial expressions and a powerful singing voice, he's well-suited to his leading role.

Though he can imagine a future in film or traditional stage acting, musical theater is Shaindlin's passion, and he feels this show has given him the skills to pursue that passion in the future.

"I've learned how to find the details in the text of a play and put them into my character," he said.

At the final dress rehearsal before opening night, students rushed around in their costumes, pausing on stage for mic checks, then darting back into the wings. In one corner, band members tuned their instruments, pausing briefly when a screech of amplified feedback roared through the black box theater. Amidst the chaos, recent Paly grad Cara Parker took a moment to chat.

As Mary Pickett, Parker has to be versatile: she's both distraught to find herself trapped in Wonder and curious to learn its rules. One minute she's lecturing strangers, the next she's tap dancing along to their songs.

"I feel like it's really good for actors to create a character," she said. "It helps you try out new things, which is what acting is all about."

As she spoke, the house lights flashed on and off, and a technician leaned out of the booth to yell down to the stage.

"Places, everyone!" she yelled.

"How are you going to do that for the performance?" Herr called back up at her.

"Over the headset," the tech replied, smiling sheepishly.

Finally, with a roll of drums, the entire cast flooded the stage for the opening dance number. With wild eyes and gaping mouths, heads cocked and shoulders hunched, they shimmied, staggered and shuddered in unison, seemingly anesthetized yet very much alive.

Central to the success of any musical are the melodies and lyrics that drive the action along. In developing "'Twas Brillig," Kienitz worked closely with composers Ernström and Lu, sending them lyrics and asking them to compose the score. Ernström said the most gratifying part of the process was coming in to rehearsal to hear the cast singing his score.

"When you have something on paper, it's sometimes hard to imagine what it's going to sound like," he said, "but when you transfer it to live instruments and voices, it can really jump alive."

Lu said it was a joy working with the cast of "'Twas Brillig."

"I've had a lot of fun working with these really talented people who learn their notes easily and quickly," he said. "It's made my life as a music director pretty straightforward -- you can really milk the good stuff and work on shaping the music."

Audiences should come prepared for a healthy dose of irreverence; the musical includes colorful language, allusions to sex and drugs and even a pregnant woman who smokes. Yet it's clear these elements aren't there simply for the shock factor; "'Twas Brillig" is serious about its send-up of popular culture, just as the teens involved are serious about producing high quality live theater.

"The more people get involved, the more it will be able to thrive," Shaindlin said of A Theatre Near U. "It's definitely a company that should be thriving in this area."

What: "'Twas Brillig," presented by A Theatre Near U

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts

When: Through June 27, with shows Friday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.

Cost: $17-$22

Info: Go to or call 650-903-6000.

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