By Alicia Eler
Alice is back in town.
After hitting the road for an East Coast tour, Lookingglass Alice, Lookingglass Theatre's acclaimed 2005 take on Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, returns to the company's Water Tower Water Works stage on Tuesday 26, with additional scenes and more of the signature acrobatic twists and turns that made the show an instant success.
"It's a show that we extended twice the first time around [in 2005], but there were still people who wanted to see it, so we thought that it would be fun to run it here in the summer," says David Catlin, Lookingglass' Artistic Director.
Alice is returning home to Chicago after successful runs in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia at venues considerably larger than Lookingglass' 270-seat main stage, including the 1,100-seat McCarter Theater Center in Princeton, NJ. It was a challenge the cast and crew tried to put in perspective, says Catlin. "The venue size–change is actually a lot like Alice," he says. "She shrinks and grows throughout the stories, eating and drinking—and it's all different kinds of sizes throughout."
The company scored some new talent while on tour, and Catlin and his team threw in new scenes, props and more of Lookingglass' famous physical stunts that he says make the play tighter and more exciting. "Each time someone new comes in, we change it a bit and take advantage of the new skills they bring to the table," he says. "There's a whole new sequence where Alice drinks from the drinking bottle and she shrinks. We do this by having the world around her grow a little bit—a tiny ball of yarn rolls out as she begins drinking, and then a giant ball of yarn rolls out as the world around her grows." The acrobatics, done with the help of a circus arts training course taught by Evanston's Actors' Gymnasium, have gotten more sophisticated, too. "In [one scene] Alice dives out into the air in a sensation of free flight," says Catlin.
Alice travels across an actual chessboard in this production, and within each square, a scene is set to reflect a stage of growing up, Catlin explains. "The Caterpillar [represents] this sort of toddler phase," he says. "In some ways, he's this old, wise character, but he asks a lot of questions like 'Who are you?' and 'Why, why?,' sort of like a toddler."
On some level, Catlin says, even small kids seem to catch on to the messages about the illusion of free will and the larger forces that guide life in the 90-minute production. "We find that a lot of the kids are laughing with recognition of the more complicated themes in the play," he says. "Kids as young as four and five are laughing along—not just with the circus elements, but also with the clever, sophisticated humor.
"Most kids are capable of getting the more thoughtful moments and appreciate when the story is a little dark or scary," Catlin says. "I think the circus elements and wild characters keep kids—and grownups—focused for the whole adventure."
The show's return home to Chicago is a full-circle moment of sorts for Catlin, one of the founding members of the theater company, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in February. In an earlier incarnation, Alice was Lookingglass' first production (famously funded with fellow member David Schwimmer's bar mitzvah money), as well as its namesake.
For Catlin, the show never gets old. "There's something about these performers and the sort of buoyancy, madness and whimsy of Lewis Carroll's work that I think is just joyful to watch every time," he says. "That sort of having fun, not taking anything oh-so-seriously, I think Lewis Carroll would approve of it."
Lookingglass Alice opens Tuesday 26.