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Looking back to look forward is a common impulse. Lookingglass Theatre’s first show, produced in 1988, was Through the Looking Glass–and now it’s performing David Catlin’s acrobatic new adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, written by Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, for his young friend Alice Liddell. Catlin’s version is as chaotic as its sources–or perhaps the logic of his piece is hidden, a sort of deep structure. Despite the show’s resemblance to The Wizard of Oz–just as Professor Marvel becomes the wizard, Dodgson is part of Alice’s real and fantasy lives–her journey isn’t nearly as straightforward as Dorothy’s. Nor should it be: Alice desires nothing so simple as going home. Instead the question Catlin asks is whether she should grow up or not, and if so, how. The answer is far from obvious. The tragedy is that none of us has any choice in the matter.
Lookingglass Alice is hardly tragic in tone, however. In fact it’s brilliant at being dumb, making kids and adults alike laugh. (As Dodgson once gleefully noted, one child told him she thought his second book was even more stupid than the first.) The White Knight–thought to be the character who most resembles Dodgson–is a wonderful comic creation here, played with simultaneous primness and abandon by Lawrence E. DiStasi, who also portrays Dodgson. He first arrives onstage whinnying and riding his makeshift steed, a ramshackle bicycle, then shouts “Dismount!” to prop up his wounded pride after he falls off. (Or maybe that’s not the reason: the childish White Knight is so caught up in make-believe that he may not know what’s real and what’s pretend.) Other notably ridiculous characters include the hedgehogs acting as croquet balls when Alice plays her disastrous game with the Red Queen: alternately hissing viciously and sniveling pathetically, they not only make us laugh but make the queen’s cruelty in whacking a living creature vivid.
In this show Lookingglass practices a wonderful economy–a spur to creativity–despite its Mag Mile location. Lauren Hirte is the only ensemble member of the five who doesn’t play multiple roles. In the demanding part of Alice she’s onstage constantly, playing straight man to the plethora of other characters–and often flying through the air to boot. DiStasi portrays not only the solemn Dodgson and the playful White Knight but also the White Queen, taking her from old age to childhood. Anthony Fleming III is sinuous as the Cheshire Cat and roly-poly as Tweedledee; the neat, small Doug Hara makes both a fabulous hedgehog and a poignant Humpty Dumpty; and Tony Hernandez is cuddly as the dopey Dormouse and downright scary as the Red Queen, cruel illogic incarnate. From scenic designer Dan Ostling’s props (a dozen folding chairs create the Mad Hatter’s tea party) to Mara Blumenfeld’s ingenious costumes (she nails the Tortoise with just a green stocking cap and a plastic garbage can lid), everything is done with admirable efficiency and invention.
And done well. Few props arrive onstage without a visual and/or aural bang. The circus tricks–riding a unicycle, stilt walking, tumbling, aerial routines–are all expertly performed, though sometimes their connection to the text is tenuous. Occasionally a dance enlivens the piece, though not so successfully as the physical comedy. Catlin’s script, which includes Carroll’s riddling, wordplay, poetry, and philosophical conundrums, works best when it’s intertwined with movement. In my personal favorite bit of physical comedy, the White Knight clambers all over Alice while delivering microscopically detailed instructions on how to climb over a gate.
Lookingglass Alice has too many endings by half, and I much preferred the early one featuring Humpty Dumpty, a character so young he’s an egg. Sitting on top of a ladder and whipped by a dreary wind, he’s a lonely figure emotionally and physically stuck–the embodiment of someone who’s refused to grow up. There’s some emotional complexity to his scene, and little in the (multiple) partings between Alice and the White Knight/Dodgson, unfortunately accompanied by music so sappy that a woman behind me must have imagined she was watching TV and went “Awwww…” Still, looking beyond the company’s few uncharacteristic lapses in judgment, this is a fine work in the Chicago tradition of physical theater, both intricate and messy, cerebral and freewheeling.
When: Through 3/27: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM
Where: Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): phot/Michael Brosilow.