nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 10, 2007
The physical theater revolution continues: Lookingglass Alice, from Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company, is nothing less than circus as narrative, using Lewis Carroll's famous stories about Alice in Wonderland as the starting point for an inventive, imaginative 90 minutes of theatricks and derring-do. Five remarkable performers astonish us throughout and make us believe there must be three times that many. Young people—and this show is being presented here in New York at the New Victory Theatre, so there were lots of them in the audience—seem particularly delighted, but Lookingglass Alice is a show to bring out the awestruck child in all of us.
Consider, for example, a Humpty Dumpty (Doug Hara, dressed in an egg-colored suit) perched 20 feet or more above the stage, rattling on to Alice as he does in the Carroll stories, and then—zounds!—taking the fall for which he is so famous (in a manner that I won't give away!). Or a Red Queen who towers over her subjects because she's played by a man on impossibly tall stilts. Or a Mad Hatter conjuring what seems like an endless supply of chairs for his tea party by pulling them out of a basket that, as far we can tell, couldn't possibly have that many chairs inside it. (This particular bit dazzled the curious children seated on the stage just a foot or so away from said basket.)
Consider, especially, Lauren Hirte's Alice, a curious but pragmatic young lady who nevertheless thinks nothing of journeying through Wonderland by climbing up a series of ropes and then swinging joyously high above everybody else's heads. Hirte is a phenomenal artist and athlete, adept at all sorts of gymnastic/aerial feats. She seems to be having a blast, and her enthusiasm is completely infectious.
This Alice was created and directed by David Catlin, and uses the familiar stories as signposts rather than direct source. Catlin's plot concept is that Alice, once she's become very small (after being urged by a magic potion to "Drink Me"), is a pawn on a chessboard: she must move across the squares to the other side of the board in order to realize her dream of becoming a queen. Each square occasions a different adventure. In one she encounters the Caterpillar (here sensationally realized as three clownish acrobats in matching "skins"); in another she plays croquet with the Red Queen (wielding flamingo mallets and using very large hedgehogs as balls, just as in the story); in yet another, she meets Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.
All of the eccentric characters that Alice happens upon are portrayed by four astoundingly versatile actors—Larry DiStasi (who rides a unicycle as the White Knight), Anthony Fleming III (taking daredevil leaps as the Cheshire Cat), Tony Hernandez (on those stilts as the Red Queen), and the aforementioned Hara (who theatregoers may remember from Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses, another Lookingglass production).
Providing the imaginative and often ingenious costumes that bring all these well-known figures to life is Mara Blumenfeld; Dan Ostling (set), Christine Binder (lighting), and Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman (sound and music) fill out the environment splendidly, turning the New Victory stage into what amounts to a one-ring circus, or a gigantic jungle gym. Catlin's staging is lighter than air, with plenty of simple interactivity to delight the smaller fry and many moments of pure beauty that take the breath away.
Now all this said, there's an element that doesn't quite work here: Catlin has built his show to be a traditional children's story in at least one way, supplying a sort of moral at the end that really isn't supported by Carroll or the circus ambience. I wish he hadn't: sheer enjoyment of craft and play is more than enough for this show to be about.