Sunday, December 07, 2014

'Lookingglass Alice' Provides a Mirthful Trip to Wonderland, for Once at Least -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Lookingglass Alice
Lookingglass Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 15

Lookingglass Alice has been a holiday season staple at Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre since 2005. (I don't know if it has been presented every year, but definitely several.)

What I knew of the concept--a kitschy adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, complete with aerial acrobatics--sounded reasonably appealing, and reviews have always seemed rather laudatory.

But though I have attended roughly 900 live performances of various types since late 2005, I'd never seen nor seriously even considered Lookingglass Alice.

Until last Thursday night.

One could say a confluence of factors--an aunt speaking of seeing it recently, my working downtown, half-price tickets on HotTix, a new 4-star (out of 4) review by the Tribune's Chris Jones--served to open up the rabbit hole, and I happily dropped in.

I'm glad I did, for even if I'm not quite mad as a hatter about the show, I liked it a whole lot.

And admired it even more. 

Adapted by Lookingglass ensemble member David Catlin from the works of Lewis Carroll--whose real name, as referenced in the performance, was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson--and produced in association with The Actors Gymnasium, the wonderfully imaginative Lookingglass Alice is performed with great deftness, wit and charm.

I never read Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass, and probably only saw Disney's Alice in Wonderland sometime in early childhood, but I'm familiar enough with the general conceit and mythology to appreciate this show's wonderfully whimsical takes on characters such as the Mad Hatter, Red Queen, White Knight, Cheshire Cat, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.

All of the costuming--by Mara Blumenfeld--is fantastic, and though I knew the cast size was small, I'm truly amazed in reviewing the program that I saw only 5 different people onstage.

They were all outstanding.

Lauren Hirte, who has performed as Alice since the show's inception--she now alternates the role with Lindsey Noel Whiting--is adorably winsome, though clearly emblematic of an Alice well above her stated age of 7-1/2.

At times, Hirte laughed so effusively--often in her scenes with Samuel Taylor, who plays the White Knight and many other roles with a quirky glee--that I wasn't sure if she was doing so in character or not.

But she was all the more charming for that, and the multitude of acrobatic maneuvers she performed were rather amazing.

Molly Brennan is terrific as the brilliantly-designed Red Queen, but also wonderful in additional parts, such as the three-pronged caterpillar she embodies with Kevin Douglas (primarily the Mad Hatter) and Anthony Fleming III (Cheshire Cat and other roles).

So you have a 90-minute show that is fun throughout, with great acting, brilliant costuming, amazing acrobatics and a cool, fun vibe that should appeal abundantly to all ages.

I even loved that Elton John's "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" and Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" were playing in the lobby before and after the show, respectively.

My admiration for the work is plentiful, to the point that I can't envision any way in which it could have been better.

I enjoyed it, and I recommend it, but only to the level of @@@@, not 5, perhaps not in any way due to the quality of the production, but more so because of my own preferences and all else I have seen.

In terms of "theatrical" performances--as opposed to concerts, but varying widely in terms of type and texture--I have long found that I greatly prefer shows with a clear narrative to most that lack one.

While I have nothing but awestruck admiration for performers in shows such as Stomp, Riverdance and Cirque du Soleil extravaganzas, usually I want a story.  

Which, in gleaning Alice in Wonderland, Lookingglass Alice has to a certain extent.

And thus I liked it more than other circus-type shows such as Fuerza Bruta, Traces and The Beatles LOVE.

But while appreciating Alice's general "stranger in a strange land" concept that has woven its way into myriad other works, Lookingglass Alice felt far more like a showcase than a play. I didn't completely follow any storyline, and really didn't feel like I had to.

Certainly, not every show has to be of the same kind; life, and theater, would be boring if this were the case.

I imagine many folks seeing Lookingglass Alice--and it really should appeal, as advertised, to ages 5 to 105--as a relatively rare night of theater will come away gasping about how great and inventive and original it is.

But within a week of seeing a touring version of  The Lion King musical--which is beyond spectacular just as a visual spectacle--and in a year in which I've enjoyed numerous great musicals, plays, concerts and even "performance shows" (e.g. Blue Man Group), through no fault of its own Lookingglass Alice just didn't dazzle me to the highest of levels.

For the right price at the right time, I'm happy to see almost anything.

And being thoroughly entertained, perhaps even amazed, is always a triumph and a joy.

Such is the case with Lookingglass Alice.

But the very best shows almost invariably imbue me with an instant desire to see them again at some point.

Here, a solitary trip through the looking-glass should well suffice.

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