Before anyone asks, Children’s Theatre Company’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which is in previews this week and has its first performance Feb. 17, is not like the Disney movie.

“If you're thinking that it's going to be Disney I would change your expectations,” Taj Ruler, who plays the Cheshire Cat in the production, said over Zoom.

The theater’s approach sticks with Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” vibes.

“Lots of ​little vignettes, lots of things that are coming and going,” Ruler said. “I would say more whimsical than even the [original] Alice in Wonderland..definitely more dry humor or very big bold humor.”

Taj Ruler plays Cheshire Cat in Children Theatre Company's 2024 production of "Alice in Wonderland." Photo courtesy of Children's Theatre Company

And sometimes the humor is silly. Like playing with a toddler, Ruler hides their face behind their paws as the Cheshire Cat to suggest they have disappeared. The costume itself is a giant puppet managed by more than one person. The additional puppeteers, who are student actors, can take the legs elsewhere and the tail can do things that Ruler isn’t even aware of– they just control the front paws. You can see where that can get funny.

It's a real collaborative effort to make it a cohesive character, which is really exciting and fun,” Ruler said. “I get to have a lot of creativity with the character itself.”

Taj Ruler, who plays the Cheshire Cat, dedicated their performance to their late cat Lucifer (left). Pumpkin (right) has been an influence, too. Photo by Bill Hoben

The Children Theatre Company’s version of “Alice in Wonderland” sticks to Carroll’s original plot and Ruler won’t be the only puppet character on stage. Besides other characters in puppet form, the show also includes the use of shadow puppets.

Ruler said the most challenging part of the play was learning how to do puppeteering. Eric Van Wyk, the puppet designer for the show, worked with the cast to teach them puppeteering on the fly.

“He's incredible and has been helping us find how we move our own bodies to make the puppet characters come to life,” Ruler said.  

Ruler last performed at the Children’s Theatre Company as the understudy in “Corduroy.” Performing iconic characters doesn’t add any extra pressure to their performances, though. For Ruler, they appreciate how Cheshire Cat is one of Alice’s only allies in the show.

“The Cheshire Cat is just here to have a good time,” Ruler said.

Ruler is also a frequent performer at HUGE Theatre with the Shrieking Harpies, a musical improv group.

You can see Ruler as Cheshire Cat in “Alice in Wonderland,” which runs at the Children’s Theatre Company from Feb. 17-March 31. There is also an audience guide for the show.