LOOKINGGLASS ALICE at Lookingglass Theatre, Review: A Captivating, Dazzling, and Ultimately Breathtaking Experience

 

After being involved in theatre for the last eleven years in Chicago, I have to admit that until now I’ve never actually made it out to Lookingglass Theatre Company to see the magnificent “Lookingglass Alice” before. “Alice”, which is co-produced with the Actors Gymnasium, initially premiered at Lookingglass back in 2005. The show was so successful that it’s been revived numerous times over the past nine years and has even been taken on tour for regional productions.

 

Lindsey Noel Whiting (Alice)

 

Though I had heard this show was phenomenal, a part of me took it for granted that “Lookingglass Alice” was playing so often that I didn’t rush to go see this play. I knew that if I didn’t make the show it would most likely be revived again and again.

 

Another part of me held back from seeing “Alice” because I equated the story unfairly in my mind with the Disney animated feature. So I assumed that “Alice” was just a children’s show and not yet having any kids myself I didn’t feel the need to go see it. And while it is somewhat geared towards children still, it’s also a show that is so mesmerizing and entertaining it could really be enjoyed by all audiences.

 

I have to say that I was really missing out on an incredible experience by refraining from going to this show for so long. “Lookingglass Alice” is truly unlike any show I’ve seen in Chicago… or really anywhere. It’s a beautiful blend of many theatrical elements: circus stunts, contemporary spins, improvisational comedy, and fantasy-like phases that are mixed in together in an odd jumbled up way that forms a cohesive whole.

 

(top to bottom) A. Fleming III, M. Brennan, K. Douglas, L. N. Whiting (facing away)

 

Adapted (and directed) by Lookingglass’s own David Catlin, “Lookingglass Alice” feels authentic to everything Lewis Carroll penned in his original source materials. Catlin’s adaptation combines “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” along with portions of “Through the Lookingglass and What Alice Found There” and many other of Carroll’s stories that seem to have been inspired by the love for his own niece named Alice. “Lookingglass Alice” primarily deals with Alice making her way through Wonderland across squares on a chessboard toward becoming a Queen and the myriad of zany and mischievous characters she encounters along the way..

 

Generally speaking I’m usually not a fan of spectacles such as death-defying acrobatics in plays. Many times these stunts tend to only be mindless tourist pandering fluff pieces which serve no purpose to the overall plotline. But “Alice” is entirely different than most plays and there is a greater purpose for it here.

 

The dazzling aerial acrobatics and gymnastic jumps and flips in “Alice” aren’t a distraction. Instead they’re intertwined within the texture of the piece magnifying the surreal nonsensical impossible dreamlike quality to Alice’s madcap Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s stories are full of these magical illusions, whimsical absurdities, and shimmering spectacles themselves so it would make sense to incorporate those same elements in a stage production. These stunts serve to underscore the point that we’re peering into the mind of a little girl’s imagination, full of her maddening fears, her puzzling confusion, and her joyful sense of frivolity.

 

Lindsey Noel Whiting (Alice)

 

The hyper-talented well-polished five member cast here is all-around outstanding, if not downright excellent. Collectively, I’d venture to say that they’re about as perfect as you can get for a show like this. Since many of these performers have done these roles many times before in previous productions of “Lookingglass Alice” overall they all feel so comfortable on stage that no one seems like they’re over-thinking their roles or still in the developmental process like there are in many Chicago plays. Indeed there were many times when watching “Lookingglass Alice” that we had to guess whether a moment was actually planned or improvised on the spot.

 

One of the best things about giving “Alice” moments of improvisational audience interaction is that it helps keep up the excitement for the actors each night and prevents them from giving stale performances over time. Just considering how many times many of them have done this show before, everyone feels so fresh. And since every performance is going to provide new opportunities with a different audience it almost feels like we’re discovering each moment of Alice’s adventure along with the cast.

 

The improv style of the piece isn’t just to keep things fresh though. Just like the circus stunts, it too serves a greater purpose in framing the overall picture to this rotating, jagged, topsy-turvy world where everything is off-balance and nothing is predictable.

 

And not only does the cast feel totally comfortable on stage, but they also manage to fuse this confidence in their characters with an infectious energy which made everyone so immensely enjoyable to watch. In fact, a lot of the thrill in “Lookingglass Alice” comes not only from the amazing and well executed circus stunts as would be expected, but from how free and playful everyone seems. It feels like this cast is having the time of their life performing on stage, and as a result we share in their excitement the whole time.

 

Anthony Fleming III (Cheshire Cat)

 

Undoubtedly the role of Alice is the most challenging out of all of them. The role is so strenuous and demanding that two actresses have been cast as Alice (they switch for every other performance). Lauren Hirte originated the role back in 2005 and has performed in all its revived productions and on tour. Hirte is still with the show and no doubt must be amazing. On opening night, however, Alice was being played by the astonishing Lindsey Noel Whiting.

 

Both of these adult actresses have to play a curious seven and a half year old girl who never gets to leave the stage for the entire 95 minutes. On top of this, they are required to do some of the show’s most impressive and physically taxing stunts. Alice does some breathtaking acrobatics through hoops, hanging from ropes, and suspended between three bungee cords all high above the stage floor. It’s no wonder why this role has to be shared.

 

Whiting, who worked alongside Hirte as the other “Alice” many times before, has got some outrageous stamina. Even in the midst of her visually dazzling aerial routines, Whiting made it all look so effortless and graceful on opening night. I probably felt more exhausted watching her do these demanding stunts than she looked for the entire show.

 

Whiting has more than just insane physical skills though; she’s also a lovely actress. Her knack for improv is impressive and her character’s frustration as well as her confusion felt real for Alice’s age. And there are moments of emotional truth in her performance that are just as captivating to watch as her acrobatic skills.

 

Samuel Taylor (White Knight)

 

Aside from Alice, the rest of our cast here is just as impressive. Samuel Taylor is terrific in his multiple roles as the wild White Knight with some mad unicycle skills. Like everyone else outside of Alice, Taylor also doubles as multiple other players throughout most notably as Dodson (who I’m assuming is a stand-in for Lewis Carroll himself) providing the show with a realistic tone that ties the story in at the very end to make a broader statement about life in general.

 

Anthony Fleming III who has been involved in every production of “Alice” since its inception nine years ago has done some amazing character work that absolutely seems to have gotten stronger and more playful over time. As the Cheshire Cat his physical choices are downright phenomenal, particularly his crazy eye movements which seem to wind and unwind according to their own rhythmical clock. And as one of the tea-party members in the Mad-Hatters scene Fleming is doing some fantastic physical jolts and twitches that added so much unsettled madness to his character without even saying a word.

 

Molly Brennan is an absolute delight to watch as she plays around with the Red Queen’s restless, tyrannical bossiness. Her snapping vocals and trills on the tongue are remarkable. And Brennan’s comic timing with the improv is spot-on, at one point during the production I saw a couple arrived late during her scene. Noticing this she playfully berated them about being on time.

 

And, finally Kevin Douglas gives one of the more emotional and thought-provoking performances as Humpty Dumpty. His gentle scene with Alice brings out the underlying love and the great overarching fantasy and Douglas’s high-speed take on the Mad-Hatter’s wordplay was impeccable.

 

Daniel Ostling’s set design is simple, yet enchanting at setting up a world where the impossible is suddenly possible. Other than the opening scene, there are no real set pieces to speak of. Instead we have hidden stage doors below, blue sheets of fabric, and other visual effects that open up our imagination in a whole new way.

 

Lee Brasuell’s superb rigging helps add to this bewildering sense of amazement as well. For those who have never been to Lookingglass before there’s a sudden and utterly surprising quick scene change within the first ten minutes that involves a mirror and a curtain. Its brilliant execution will not just leave you in total shock, but it gives this production a real sense of wonder that will set the tone for the rest of this fantastical production.

 

The wonder in this amazing show is amplified even further with Christine A. Binder’s fabulous lighting design which includes highlighting squares on a chalkboard for Alice to journey her way through. Also adding puzzling enchantment is Ray Nardelli’s spirited sound design which ranged from waltzes all the way up to hip-hop with several mixtures of styles such as salsa in-between.

 

Molly Brennan (Red Queen)

 

Mara Blumenfeld’s colorful and detailed costumes are striking. Most notable is the Red Queen gorgeous red dress. As Brennan is on stilts she towers above the cast on par with those in the upper seating and her opulent gown drapes at least 15 feet to the floor. The dress is so intricate that even a teacup manages to stay strapped on to her right hip even while she spins around the stage floor. And though the Queen’s outfit was the most memorable, all of Blumenfeld’s costume choices were amazing. For saying how physical the movements are in this show it was impressive how functional Blumenfeld made her various costumes.

 

And David Catlin’s direction here is impeccable. It seems like since Lookingglass has done this show so many times before that he’s freed up the cast and is just allowing them to have fun. Every moment feels easy and nothing comes off as being overly staged or choreographed, even the more grueling physical circus tricks come off with an air of freedom.

 

No production is ever flawless, but “Lookingglass Alice” comes about as close as you can get to being a perfect production than anything I’ve seen in years. The only thing that could use a tad of fixing is the Mad Hatter tea party scene where the actors repeat the same movements over and over and time never goes anywhere. The scene had great energy, but it just went on a tad longer than necessary. This is a very minor critique though in what is an overall stunning, highly entertaining, and essentially beautiful work of art.

 

Bottom Line: “Lookingglass Alice” is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. I understand now why “Lookingglass Alice” has become such an iconic staple for Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre. “Lookingglass Alice” is a remarkable achievement that serves as a stirring high point for Chicago theatre. It’s not often that I get a chance to say something like that, though it is certainly well-deserved here. This marvelous show is a comedic, emotional, and beautiful journey through a surreal chaotic and magical dreamlike world as well as a visually stunning roller-coaster ride. It’s not just a show targeted towards children, but to the child inside all of us. Don’t take for granted that “Lookingglass Alice” will keep being revised as I have in the past. After all the last time it was produced was over four years ago. Do yourself a favor and go see it now!

 

LOOKINGGLASS ALCIE – Lookingglass Theatre Company

Running Time: 1 hour and 35 minutes, there is no intermission

Location: Lookingglass Theatre Company, 821 N. Michigan Ave, Chicago IL 60611 at Pearson 

The theatre is located inside Chicago’s historic Water Tower at the intersection of Michigan and Pearson. It is directly across the street on Pearson from the Water Tower shopping complex. It is a busy neighborhood so plan to arrive early as there is no late seating. 

Runs through: February 15, 2015

Curtain Times:  TUESDAYS - 3 PM (Dec 23 only) and 7:30 PM (Nov 25, Dec 23 and 30 only), WEDNESDAYS - 1 PM (Dec 24 only) 3 PM (Nov 26 & Dec 31 only) and 7:30 PM, THURSDAYS – 3 PM (except Nov 13, 20, 27; Dec 25; Jan 1, 8, 22; Feb 5 and 12), 7:30 PM (except Nov 25, Dec 25, and Jan 1), FRIDAYS – 3 PM (Nov 28, Dec 26, and Jan 2 only), 7:30 PM, SATURDAYS – 3 PM (except Nov 15 and 22) and 7:30 PM (except Nov 22), SUNDAYS – 3 PM (except Nov 23) and 7:30 PM (Dec 7, 14, 21; Jan 11 and 25; Feb 8 and 15 only) 

Performances for People with Disabilities: Touch tour/Audio described performance on February 1, 2015 at 3 PM. Open captioned performance is on January 25 at 3 PM.

Tickets: $45 - $85 and can be purchased online (see link above) or by calling the Lookingglass Box Office at 312-337-0665

Discounted Tickets: A limited number of student tickets are available the day of the show for $20 with a valid student ID. Groups of 8 or more can save up to 20%. Contact Group Sales at [email protected] or call 773-477-9257 x125.

 

Adapted and Directed by David Catlin from the works of Lewis Carroll, produced in association with The Actors Gymnasium

Scenic Design by Daniel Ostling, Costume Design by Mara Blumenfeld, Artistic Costume Design by Alison Siple, Lighting Design by Christine A. Binder,Sound Design by Ray Nardelli, Properties by Sarah Burnham, Choreography by Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, Rigging by Lee Brasuell, and Stage Management by Jeri Frederickson.

Cast includes: Kevin Douglas (Mad Hatter), Anthony Fleming III (Cheshire Cat), Molly Brennan (Red Queen), Lauren Hirte (Alice), Samuel Taylor (White Knight) and Lindsey Noel Whiting (Alice).

Understudies: Kara Davidson, Micah Figueroa, Chris Matthews, Isaac Schoepp, and Samuel Zeisel

Photo Credits: Liz Lauren

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