If you’re a theatre buff, you’d really better see “Lookingglass Alice” at the Alliance Theatre, running through May 2, because this is a show people will be talking about for some time; and I know you’ll want to be able to add your view, no? Besides, it’s an off-the-wall, edgy delight.
The Alliance is actually playing host to Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, founded in 1988 with this show (contradictory program notes say “Alice” premiered in 2005; I suppose that means the current version). The show is written and directed by David Catlin, who is also Lookingglass Theatre’s artistic director. (Are you confused? Good. “Curiouser and curiouser”–you’re getting into the spirit of the show.) “Alice” is the stage adaptation of two Lewis Carroll books: “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass.”
Can you say Cirque du Soleil? When Mr. Catlin was starting the company, he saw the Cirque and “literally sat on the edge of my seat and thought, ‘Theatre should be this way!’” He has done just that; once you descend into the rabbit hole of this show, there’s no going back: The story of “Alice” has always had an air of breathless discovery and danger. So does “Lookingglass Alice.”
There’s a moment near the beginning of the show when, let’s just say, everything changes—with a bang. On opening night at this instant a very small child in the audience started crying. The incident was annoying (the child—an infant, really—was too small to be in a theatre) and yet perfect at the same time, because it mirrored at once the delight and fear we all felt.
It is impossible to describe the theatricality of what follows. Ben Brantley, chief theatre critic of The New York times, once observed: “Translating the ineffable quality of live theatre into printable prose is a challenge that can never be fully met” (although Ben and I keep trying). For example, the towering Red Queen (Molly Brennan) is a figure of such blazing fierceness and hilarity that she literally must be seen to be believed. The same could be said of the Mad Hatter (Kevin Douglas), the Cheshire Cat (Anthony Fleming III), the White Knight (Doug Hara), and Alice herself (Lindsey Noel Whiting).
These actors are also thoroughly trained acrobats, and the stage is outfitted to accommodate wondrous acts of “circus choreography,” created by Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi. The Alliance stage has never seen anything quite like this. This is no earthbound “Alice.” The high-flying brilliance of Ms. Whiting’s Alice will leave you breathless. (I realize I sound like a ringmaster, but there’s no help for it.)
Don’t go expecting a traditional linear plotline, because there isn’t one. One of the key questions “Alice” asks is: Can you deal with confusion and ambivalence in your life? We seem to have a desire for certainty; but life is not about control, the play says: It’s about freedom and possibility, and the realization that just because you’ve always believed something doesn’t make it true.
I’m not going to describe the look of the stage or the audience configuration because I want you to be surprised. I think Lewis Carroll would want it that way; I’m sure the Lookingglass Theatre Company does. So fly over to the Alliance Theatre and become a slightly frightened but exhilarated kid again.