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It's a mad, mad tea party

Special guest Time (right, played by Ruthie Breuer) and the caterpillar (played by Keith Chapin) discuss the best way to capture the Jabberwock. Photos contributed by Bil Nicholson1 / 3
Time is a special guest at the Mad Tea Party.2 / 3
The white rabbit (played by Aleyse Chapin) enjoys a cup of tea, as she and her fellow tea partiers go back in time once more.3 / 3

Director Joel Soukkala spent two months trying to choose a competition piece for the County Seat Theater Company before he realized he was overthinking it and found the perfect play.

"I was trying to choose a show that would make three adjudicators happy and then I thought, 'Let's do something that's fun for us and fun for our audiences,'" Soukkala said. "And this is totally our kind of show."

The County Seat Theater Company will open its 2017 season with "The Mad Tea Party," a fantasy, filled with humor that the whole family can enjoy.

It's very funny, Soukkala said, noting he enjoyed watching a test audience watch the play a couple weeks ago.

"They were rolling [with laughter]," he said. "Honestly, if you don't laugh when you see this, there's something wrong. There's a lot of wit for adults to catch, funny lines and puns. And kids will enjoy it on a completely different level."

Theater-goers should know that it's not a repeat of the original Alice in Wonderland story by Lewis Carroll.

Rather, playwright Brian D. Taylor brings many of Carroll's characters together in an original story. Mad Hatter, Dormouse and March Hare meet for a tea party to honor Time, who has forgiven the Hatter and set time right once again. When the Jabberwock comes and wreaks havoc, the tea party guests — including the Caterpillar, the Duchess, the Frog Footman, and Tweedledee and Tweedledum (but not Alice) — decide that something must be done. Time suggests they travel back through time to the moment when the Jabberwock arrives so that they might catch him. They travel back several times, but White Rabbit's watch is fast, Hatter's is slow, and they just can't catch the Jabberwock.

Costumes are "Victorian era steam punk," Soukkala said, adding, "with muted colors, a lot of mechanical gears."

The County Seat Theater Company will compete with this production at the Minnesota Association of Community Theatres Festival on March 4 in Marshall, Minn., along with nine other theaters from around the state. Two shows will advance to the regional competition.

"Being able to participate in these festivals is a huge honor for our little theater," said Soukkala, noting the theater scored the last slot of the day, a good thing.

"I know we'll get a really good response from the audience," he added. "And we often do well with judges because we come in with a very finished product and we have the advantage of performing locally before."

The County Seat Theater Company will present local performances of "The Mad Tea Party" Feb. 17-19 and 23-26 at the Encore Performing Arts Center in Cloquet. Performances are at 7 p.m. except Sunday, when performances start at 2 p.m. Reserve tickets by calling the box office at 218-878-0071 or buy online at www.countyseattheater.com. This show offers a special family rate ($40 for immediate family or grandparents and grandkids) as well.

"The Mad Tea Party" opens the theater company's 30th season. The shows that follow will be highlights from the past 30 years, including the spring production of "Everybody Loves Opal," which they did back when the theater group was still performing at Carlton High School 20-some years ago.

Since 2008, the County Seat Theater Company has been located in the Encore Performing Arts Center, at 2035 Hwy 33 South (on Frontage Road) in Cloquet. The theater offers a full season of local performances, as well as youth productions, musical acts and has an art gallery featuring work by local artists.

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