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Lookingglass Alice

I want to be a queen— Alice
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 Theatre 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 Theatre Center's Matthew Theatre, 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 Theatre 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, into their stolid 1933 adaptation of the 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 was a little-seen British film version with a host of British stars that was made a year before the Disney version was released though pressure from Disney insured that it was not widely distribution in the US. It's clear that 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 current 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. this is 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 is 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.

The question this production begs is whether it is respectful of the text when the Red Queen tells Alice to" eat the bloody biscuit"— and will children care? Probably and unfortunately not. Most kids are not likely to know what they are missing. And what about the whimsy, that presumably propels the story? It's been 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 breathtakingly so. 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 Night sporting a helmet that looks like a silver samovar and had an amusing turn on a unicycle. 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 Theatre 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 Theatre. Let's hope, by then the pace is picked up.

Lookingglass Alice
Adapted and Directed by David Catlin
Cast: Larry DiStasi, Anthony Fleming III, Doug Hara, Tony Hernandez, Lauren Hirte.
Adapted and Directed by David Catlin
  Scenic Design: Daniel Ostling
Costume Design: Mara Blumenfeld
Lighting Design: Chris Binder
Sound Design and Composition: Andre Pluess & Ben Sussman
  Circus Rigging Desing: Scott Osgood
  Circus Choreography: Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi
  Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes (no intermission)
  The Matthews Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, N.J.
  Performances January 9 through 28, 2007; Mondays through Thursdays at 7:30 PM; Friday at 8 PM; Saturdays at 3 and 8 PM; Sundays at 2 and 7:30 PM.
  Tickets: $28 - $53. Children, $15. l (609) 258 - 2787 or visit
  Opening night: Friday January 12
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on Sunday matinee January 14, 2007
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