When actor-director-writer Jason Rouse debuted his sketch comedy show Wonderland at the Siren Theater in 2017, an audience of five showed up. Yet the show eventually became a surprise success story, surviving the pandemic and emerging as an arena for budding young comics to test their mettle.
“They’ve only really performed in the shows we’ve done together,” Rouse says of his troupe of players. “Doing sketch comedy in a real space with people watching is daunting for them, but last year showed them they could do it and be successful.”
This year’s holiday edition of Wonderland will be performed Nov. 10-11 and 17-18 at the Siren. The show’s sketches will involve magicians, time-traveling nepo babies, amateur ASMR, and mediocre men (a favorite theme for Rouse).
Rouse will perform in Wonderland, as will seasoned comedy vets Scott Engdahl and David Burnett. They’ll work alongside the show’s six teen stars, who are students at Pacific Crest Community School, a private academy in Northeast Portland where Rouse teaches courses in drama, journalism and podcasting.
“Sometimes they’ll have ways into characters that I never would have imagined,” Rouse says of the students. “They’re always so creative and bright. I direct them like I would direct anybody.”
In addition to performing in Wonderland, the students influenced its content. One of them suggested a sketch involving ASMR, aka “autonomous sensory meridian response” (the online phenomenon that typically involves videos with soothing, whispered dialogue).
“I really liked the focus of whispering into a microphone and wearing headphones and mixing in tapping,” Rouse says. “But it can really be used for preposterous purposes, which is what we’re doing.”
Over the years, the Wonderland ensemble has evolved, going from a group of four men and one woman to all women to the current lineup. Through all the changes, the show has reflected Rouse’s sensibility—and his belief in the value of theater that lightens moods in grim times.
Rouse is a passionate fan of organizations like The Theatre Company and Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble—both of which he praises for their euphoric productions—and questions the value of relentlessly bleak theater. “Everything is so serious,” he says. “It drives me absolutely insane.”
That won’t be the case when Wonderland returns this Friday with tales of characters coping with hilarious, sometimes deliberately ordinary struggles.
“They’re struggling in their relationships, they have a hard time ordering a sandwich—those are the things that are interesting to me,” Rouse says. “The stakes are more interesting when they’re low. Like someone trying to get his headphones on right while he’s doing an ASMR video.”
SEE IT: Wonderland plays at the Siren Theater, 3913 N. Mississippi Ave., sirentheater.com. 7:30 pm Friday-Saturday. $20.