Theater Review - Lookingglass Alice sends Alice to the rafters

Acrobatics make Lewis Carroll's story even more twisted

Alice, Lewis Carroll's famed sojourner down rabbit holes and through looking glasses, may be literature's most flexible female. Endlessly bendy, she stretches, shrinks, takes tea with animals, and cheerfully accepts invitations to "Eat Me." More importantly, since her print debut 145 years ago, Alice has accommodated the most curious of interpretations. Jefferson Airplane's song "White Rabbit" made her an emblem of 1960s counterculture, while Tim Burton's hit 3-D film turns her into a sword-wielding action heroine.

David Catlin, artistic director of Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre, nearly makes her a literal contortionist to match her topsy-turvy transformations. Playing through May 2 at the Alliance Theatre, Lookingglass Alice transforms the inquisitive tween into an acrobat. Her coming-of-age journey incorporates rings, ropes and other circus apparatus. In adapting and directing the show, Catlin envisions an Alice who defies gravity, but not the spirit of Carroll's original books.

Catlin's own theatrical career began with Alice, back when he was a Northwestern University drama student in the mid-1980s with a young David Schwimmer. At the time, the future "Friends" star had a little cash and a lot of artistic ambition.

"David Schwimmer had a chunk of money – not a lot, but for a college student it was a lot – sitting in a bank account as a bar mitzvah present." Schwimmer convinced Catlin and other classmates to take off the fall quarter of 1986 for a long process of ensemble-building and improvisation, inspired by the creative process behind Andre Gregory's acclaimed, avant-garde Alice from 1970.

Adopting the aesthetic that all theater needs is an actor and an audience, Catlin and company's Alice opened on Friday the 13th in February of 1987. The production replicated Wonderland with merely five actors and a handful of props. The show proved to be enough of a hit for the players to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where fate gave the show a boost.

"We didn't want people to think it was a kid's show, so we wrote a blurb for the press to emphasize that it was for grown-ups. The Edinburgh newspaper ran the one-line description an 'adult version of Alice in Wonderland.' It sold out and there were literally guys in trench coats in the audience who didn't appear to be wearing pants underneath." The following year, Schwimmer, Catlin and six fellow artists made the show's bold physicality part of their mission when they founded Lookingglass Theatre.

In 2005, the company decided to use Cirque du Soleil-style stunts to revisit Alice. In creating a new version of the show, Catlin applied his parental experience to his then 2-and-a-half year-old daughter, Saylor.

"She was growing up so quickly, and one of her first sentences was, 'When can I get my ears pierced?' Just as the original books were Charles Dodgson's Carroll's real name gift to Alice Liddell and her sister, I thought, 'What would I want to give Saylor? What would I want to tell her when she's moving through life's stages?' In our version, Alice is traveling across a chessboard. She starts as a pawn, can't wait to be a queen, and each square is a different stage in life."

Any dramatization of Alice faces a challenge from the books' episodic natures. Even an entertaining version, such as Disney's 1951 cartoon feature, comes across like a handful of imaginative set pieces more than a unified story.

"Sometimes an episode that I dearly loved wouldn't necessarily fit in that arc of growing up, so I had to leave it out," Catlin says. Some alterations felt natural, however. "In the book, the caterpillar comes across as a crabby old figure. The fact that it constantly asks questions reminded me of having a toddler who constantly asks questions. Toddlers are all legs, in a way – they're learning to walk, they're always falling down. And they're in that pupal/larval stage of the butterfly."

In addition to a preschooler caterpillar played by three tumbling actors, Lookingglass Alice envisions the Tweedledee/Tweedledum encounter as an awkward junior high dance; the Mad Hatter scene as an exotic but repetitive grown-up party; and ill-fated Humpty Dumpty as a moment of dealing with death. "Humpty Dumpty, in the final square, is doomed, and that's kind of a devastating moment for a person, when we first lose someone in our lives who we care about."

Catlin realizes audiences may not notice every layer, such as the symbolic resemblance of the sea of tears to amniotic fluid building up to Alice's "birth" in Wonderland. Most of the ideas find expression in challenging stunts. "There's a moment in the play when Alice feels overwhelmed, she's just had it, she doesn't want to go on. It's physicalized in a circus apparatus called a cloud swing. The Cheshire Cat explains that her problems all have to do with perspective, and it's up to her to rise above them. So at first she's tangled in this rope, then she climbs up, begins to swing freely and controls her world."

Such a physically demanding show brings occupational hazards. Lookingglass Alice requires rigorous training and careful warm-ups so that Alice can, say, balance the White Knight on her shoulders without messing up her back.

"We have what we call 'Circus B,' a version of the show that's lower impact on the performers, so we can make adjustments to the choreography and staging if someone gets hurt. But there's no resting in this show. If they're not on stage, they're moving very quickly backstage or underneath the stage, changing costumes or preparing. It's a 90-minute acrobatic workout for these guys, and Alice never leaves the stage." In fact, helping the Alice actress provides the company with moments of inspiration.

"It never occurred to me that Alice would need to drink a lot of water. We have a bit with the Drink Me bottle, which ends up having a fun story function. Before the tea party she has her own tea party with an audience member. At one point a hedgehog brings her a flask that she takes a swig from."

After all, Alice can do six impossible things before breakfast, but she still needs to hydrate now and again.

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