What would English mathematician and author, Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, writing under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, make of all the interpretations of his famed story and of all the subsequent interpolations that have either enhanced or muddled it up since 1865? One thing for sure, The Lookingglass Theater of Chicago has joined the ever growing list of those misguided yet intrepid souls who continue to make a mockery of one of the richest and most endearing satires in all English literature. To this end, they have egregiously combined parts of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” with “Through the Lookingglass, and What Alice Found There.”
A five-member ensemble from the company that boasts a name to commemorate the Alice tomes has landed on the stage of the McCarter Theater Center’s Matthew Theater, sometimes by way of the rafters, to bring their own incoherent, but mostly insufferable slant to the stories. Sadly the inherent satire and irrepressible logic of the familiar adventure is nowhere to be seen in this circus-centered adaptation. Surprisingly, the result, despite the opportunity to perform some just okay circus stunts in costume, is a tedious and plodding consideration of the source material. For those willing and prepared to take that “frabjous” fall into that rabbit hole one more time, be forewarned.
The Lookingglass Theater Company, however, is not alone in attempting and failing to capture the essence of Wonderland. Paramount Studios put almost every star on the lot, including Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and W.C. Fields in their stolid 1933 adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic, “Alice in Wonderland.” In 1950, Walt Disney gave it the animation treatment but its overly frenetic style was not well received, although it is admired more now than then, particularly for its beguiling score. There was a time during the 1960s when Disney’s hallucinatory style was considered by some to offer a psychedelic experience. The best of the lot, however, was a little-seen British film version of Alice with a host of British stars that was made a year before the Disney version was released. But pressure from Disney made sure that it was not widely distributed in the US. To be sure, there have been more versions of Carroll’s two most famous stories than you can shake a hookah at.
It’s down that rabbit hole but notably through the looking glass in her living room that our aerial-ated Alice (Lauren Hirte) falls, then lowered from the rafters on a hoop upon which she twists and turns and contorts with impressive agility. It’s the first of many circus stunts that will offer distractions from an otherwise only half-realized entertainment. Without the circus-y movement/choreography provided by Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, Alice’s adventures would be a trial worse than the one she endures in the original story, but somehow spared in this version.
Adapter/director David Catlin has dropped the ball on this one, despite his deployment of a shower of giant balls on the stage and throughout the auditorium near the end of a 90-minute entertainment that seemed like three hours. As a director, he gives Alice and all those familiar anthropomorphic characters by whom she is confounded the opportunity to enter a wonderland of their own making, fall into and out of trap doors, walk on stilts, juggle, bounce off and under each other, and otherwise stop the story in its tracks.
But more importantly we may ask: Are they respectful of the text (The Red Queen to Alice: “Eat the bloody biscuit”)? And what about the whimsy that presumably propels the story? This has been replaced by the muscular acrobatics and gymnastic turns of those contrary characters that Alice encounters, all costumed with prerequisite flair by Mara Blumenfeld.
Lauren Hirte, who plays Alice, goes through the motions of acting but more convincingly goes through the motions of aerial artistry on a swing and entwining herself aloft in ropes, often breathtaking. She also plays the clarinet with aplomb. Tony Hernandez gets high marks for walking around on stilts, as the forbidding Red Queen, but not for his stilted acting, that also includes being one-third of a caterpillar, one half of the Dee twins, and all of the March Hare.
The four-man ensemble portraying multiple characters put more energy into their actions than in their acting. However, Anthony Fleming III is an engaging Cheshire Cat. Larry DiStasi was goofy as the clumsy White Knight sporting a helmet that looks like a silver samovar. He had a nice turn on a unicycle that got laughs. Doug Hara performed the show’s most awesome trick as an erudite Humpty Dumpty who sits atop a huge metal ladder and whose startling demise gets and deserves the loud scream from the audience.
If only the show’s circuitous path had gotten “curiouser and curiouser” instead of slower and duller. Perhaps Catlin gave the company too much rope (no pun intended); allowing for too many dead spots between the stunts. One idea that works is having part of the audience seated in tiers directly opposite us on the stage. It was almost like having us look through a looking glass but seeing others instead.
There was a suggestion of “mimsy” in Chris Binder’s lighting which helped the lack of “borogoves” in Daniel Ostling’s minimalist setting. I don’t know who is responsible for the paltry use of music, but Andre Pluess & Ben Sussman’s sound design deserves mention especially for the loud rumblings from Alice’s stomach and the loud burp after she takes a gulp from the “Drink Me” bottle. Exactly my reaction to the whole “bloody” thing.
The Lookingglass Theater is known most notably at the McCarter for its spell-binding “The Secret in the Wings.” But that show was directed by the incomparably imaginative Mary Zimmerman. Following the run at the McCarter, “Lookingglass Alice” will travel to Philadelphia and then to New York’s New Victory Theater. Let’s hope, by then at least, the pace is picked up.
“Lookingglass Alice,” through Sunday, January 28, McCarter Theater’s Matthews Theater, 91 University Place. 609-258-2787.