Having tumbled down the rabbit hole and landed in Gotham, the Lookingglass Theater Company’s lovely, lyrical and astoundingly original treatment of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” stories loses some of the magic of the homegrown version at Chi’s Water Tower Water Works — where everyone (not just the top-dollar patrons) sits on the stage and peers through Alice’s two-faced mirror. But with its airborne perfs and exquisite imagery, David Catlin’s “Lookingglass Alice” retains more than enough surreal enchantment for this brief run at the period-perfect New Victory.
From the perspective of the multidisciplinary Lookingglass company, with its muscular grounding in physical theater and circus arts, a physical vocabulary is no less intrinsic to Alice’s disorienting adventures than clever verbal wordplay. So when the plucky little heroine of this Victorian children’s classic falls asleep and dreams of a world in which all reality is turned upside-down, she literally sails up in the air on a trapeze.
In Lauren Hirte’s no-nonsense perf as this willful child — brisk, funny and remarkably free of grown-up condescension — the trapeze becomes an extension of her independent personality and the vehicle for her liberation from childhood. Her acrobatic plunge down the rabbit hole is no scary “fall,” but a lyrical aerial ballet, an exultant flight into freedom.
Once she lands in Wonderland, Alice is greeted by all manner of marvelous creatures, each as athletic as she is. (Happily, given the ensemble’s superior thesping chops, they are also exceptionally well-drawn as characters.) The White Rabbit, White Knight, Red and White Queens and Mad Hatter don’t just carry out their lunatic fairy-tale functions, they also tumble, juggle, stilt-walk, ride unicycles and free-fall into open pits.
With stunning visual assistance from Mara Blumenfeld’s spectacular costumes, Tony Hernandez’s irascible Red Queen is a holy terror on metal stilts, Larry DiStasi’s incredible shrinking White Queen is a haunting figure of age-defying fantasy and Doug Hara is downright harrowing as a morose, suicidal Humpty Dumpty, teeter-tottering on his precarious perch in a balcony box.
Since all the thesps play multiple roles in this rigorous production, they have multiple opportunities to wow us — and from time to time, as with DiStasi’s heartbreakingly fragile White Knight and his deeply disturbing portrait of the enigmatic author Charles Dodgson, to rattle our fond recollections of a childhood classic.
The dark undertones of this extraordinary production should pose no problems for children, who will find their fun in the showy pratfalls and circus turns of the chatty Mad Hatter, the contortionist Cheshire Cat and all the other exhibitionist characters who play a mean game of chess and a killer version of croquet in this endlessly inventive theater piece.
Grown-up sensibilities are more likely to appreciate Humpty Dumpty’s brilliant literary exegesis of the nonsense poem that begins, “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves….” And who could resist the comi-tragic sight of a cracked egg being ceremoniously carried aloft in an itty-bitty white coffin?