In Alice in Wonderland, a little girl falls into a rabbit hole and discovers a topsy-turvy world populated by a dapper White Rabbit, a Cheshire Cat, a Mad Hatter and a humorless Queen of Hearts.
In Alice Through the Looking Glass, the same little girl meets Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Humpty Dumpty and a Red Queen (no relation to Queen of Hearts).
One tale finds its imagery in a deck of cards, the other in a game of chess. One was written as a gift for a friend’s daughter in 1865, the other as a sequel in 1872. Since author Lewis Carroll’s day, Alice’s adventures — blended or told separately — have been retold in almost every form imaginable — silent movie, live-action movie, TV musical, animated TV movie, stage musical, Hallmark TV movie, opera, and now the Tim Burton feature film, starring Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter.
Elements of both Carroll stories wend their way onstage in this Lookingglass Theatre adaptation. Lookingglass Alice, from which the Chicago theater takes its name, was its very first show, done in 1988. This Alliance Theatre staging is its ninth incarnation, says adapter/director David Catlin, also Lookingglass’ artistic director.
If you’ve never seen a Lookingglass show, imagine a blend of live theater and circus set in a Salvador Dali painting. Or theater-cum-Cirque du Soleil. Alice clambers up ropes. Humpty Dumpty bounces in midair. The Mad Hatter rides a unicycle. The cast of five includes Alice and four others who play 10 to 15 characters each. The Caterpillar alone requires three dexterous artists.
Catlin, who co-founded Lookingglass with like-minded colleagues from Northwestern University (including “Friends” actor David Schwimmer), appreciates the Cirque comparison.
“When we first started the company, Cirque du Soleil was coming through town,” he recalls. “I literally sat on the edge of my seat and thought, ‘Theater should be this way! Theater should pull you to the edge of your seat!’ We like stories that seem kind of impossible to stage. We find that to be challenging and sort of thrilling.”
Lookingglass has done 52 world premieres, having its way with works as diverse as the Dostoevsky novel The Brothers Karamazov and Thornton Wilder’s classic play Our Town.
Unlike in Cirque, Catlin points out, the story in Lookingglass shows is paramount. “We use circus as a means of forwarding the story,” he says. “A review that would say we use gratuitous circus would not be a review I’d want to see.”
And so Lookingglass makes theater its own way. Process is a big deal. Alice, for example, took 18 months from conception to opening night. The performers work out at Lookingglass’ own Actors Gymnasium to build cardio and core strength. They train in circus arts, must sing and dance, and are then set loose to create and discover the play. Their goals: invention, transformation and collaboration.
Alice has always been special to the company.
“Since that beginning production, we felt that these two stories were a gift from Lewis Carroll,” Catlin says. “Much of Victorian children’s literature was about teaching kids to be mini adults. Carroll’s stories are cautions about growing up too fast.”
Kathy Janich is an Atlanta theater artist and freelance writer. After years in daily newspapers, she has found a joyous second career as marketing coordinator and dramaturg at Atlanta’s Synchronicity Theatre.