Lookingglass Alice: A tumble through time, childhood in tow

Lookingglass Alice.

By Christine Dolen
Miami Herald Theater Critic

The story of a little girl who tumbled down a rabbit hole into a strange land has captivated the world since 1862, when the Victorian academic who would become Lewis Carroll dreamed it up.

Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson invented the tale of Alice in Wonderland to entertain Alice Liddell and her sisters as they traveled along the River Thames.

The result of a child’s familiar plea — “Tell us a story!” — would later transform the slender, stammering Dodgson into Carroll, the successful author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Ever since, the wildly fanciful tale of that tumble into a chess-themed land of nonsense, illogic and lessons learned has inspired generations, including Lookingglass Alice director-playwright David Catlin.

Lookingglass Alice. One of the eight founders of Chicago’s Tony-winning Lookingglass Theatre Company, Catlin has worked on three stage interpretations of the story, the first when he, future “Friends” star David Schwimmer and others were students at Northwestern University in 1986.

Backed by $500 in Schwimmer’s saved bar mitzvah money, the students opened their production at a small Northwestern venue on lucky Friday the 13th in February 1987. After taking it to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, they decided to start a company built around literary adaptations and ensemble-based physical theater. They launched in 1988 with member David Kersnar’s adaptation of Through the Looking Glass, the new company’s name a nod to its inaugural production.

Lookingglass persevered, building its reputation on Chicago’s hot theater scene with such productions as Schwimmer’s adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Mary Zimmerman’s celebrated Metamorphoses. Nomadic for its first 15 years, the company moved into its current home at the historic Water Tower Water Works. To celebrate that milestone, Catlin was commissioned in 2003 to create the play that became Lookingglass Alice.

Inspiration came in the form of a question, the first complete sentence uttered by his 18-month-old daughter, Saylor: “When can I get my ears pierced?”

“I thought that maybe this could be my gift to her, telling her not to be in such a hurry to grow up,” Catlin recalls.

Influenced by the thrilling, edge-of-your seat work of Cirque du Soleil, Catlin and his collaborators decided to let circus arts help tell the story.

“Circus touches that irrational part of ourselves, and it’s filled with whimsy and nonsense. It feels appropriate to the story, a little bit giddy,” he says.

Scott Shiller: Lookingglass Alice

To that end, award-winning choreographer Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi, co-artistic director of The Actors Gymnasium in nearby Evanston, infused the show with tumbling, aerial work, stilt-walking, balancing feats and, in the case of Humpty Dumpty, a spectacular fall.

Premiering in 2005, Lookingglass Alice became an ongoing success for the company, returning for four runs and traveling to other cities.

Denver Center President and CEO Scott Shiller chose Lookingglass Alice as the 2015 summer show at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts when he was its executive vice president.

Returning to see the show in Miami, Shiller observed, “One of the great things about Lookingglass Alice is that it pushes the boundaries of theatrical storytelling and theatrical magic. It asks the audience to go on a journey with the characters and use their imagination to become part of the storytelling. The Cirque du Soleil model uses the circus arts to overwhelm your senses. Lookingglass Alice allows you to imagine a world, while being thoroughly deliberate with their choices and at the top of their craft. It’s both transparent and theatrical.”

Catlin thinks the components of Lookingglass Alice make it appeal to different ages on multiple levels.

“It has elements of circus, delicious wordplay and fantastical characters,” he says. “Carroll’s story had so much in there for whatever age you are. It doesn’t talk down to kids. It speaks to them, giving them complicated things to think about … It has layers and layers. Sometimes it’s light, sometimes it’s deeper, and at times it’s scary.”

Samuel Taylor gets to demonstrate his range as both actor and acrobat in Lookingglass Alice. He plays the White Knight, who ages backward, as well as the buttoned-up Dodgson.

The White Knight rides a 6-foot-tall unicycle while carrying a picnic basket, and he recites Jabberwocky while running through the audience, eventually leaping into the arms of Alice.

“The White Knight is who Lewis Carroll wanted to be … a version of the author who is capable of all the nonsense and wonder that Dodgson was incapable of living in his real life,” Taylor says. “He represents the joy of the child brain carried forward into adulthood.”

Taylor jokes that he and his castmates — Lindsey Noel Whiting, Lauren Hirte, Adeoye, Molly Brennan and Kevin Douglas — call themselves “the Aliceholes.” But he’s serious when he says that, despite the extensive physical training and emphasis on safety, “Alice is the gold standard of hard. The circus is hard, the running and screaming is hard, and you almost never stop moving backstage.”

Brennan plays the comically imperious Red Queen among other roles. Though she grows smaller by stages, initially Brennan is literally a towering presence: “It’s like being on a parade float. I stand on a 12-foot-high rolling apparatus that looks like [the bottom of] a dress. I put a bodice on, then add a 3-foot-tall wig.”

Whiting, who will alternate performances as Alice with Hirte in Denver, pronounces Lookingglass Alice “fun, but it feels really poignant.” Alice’s eagerness to transform from pawn to queen, from child to adult, drives her through the fanciful, adventure-filled chess game that is Wonderland.

“Really, the heart of it is her holding onto childhood vs. growing up,” Whiting says.

Adds Douglas: “It resonates because it’s about growing up so quickly. Then life passes you by, and you wish you’d taken your time.”

Saylor Catlin turned 13 in mid-August (and now wants to get her nose pierced). Though her father’s gift didn’t slow her down, it has become a gift shared by thousands.

Lookingglass Alice has been entertaining audiences for more than a decade, embodying and advancing the mission of a company with roots in Carroll’s wondrous world: “Our goal is to fire the imagination with love, to celebrate the human capacity to taste and smell, weep and laugh, create and destroy, and wake up where we first fell — changed, charged and empowered.”

About our guest writer:
Christine DolenChristine Dolen has been the Miami Herald’s theater critic since 1979. She earned journalism degrees from Ohio State University and was a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, where she actually appeared in a few plays. In 1997, she was a member of the Pulitzer Prize drama jury; in 1999, she was a senior fellow in the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University. She is an actor’s daughter.

Lookingglass Alice: Ticket information
Performances through Oct 11
Stage Theatre
ASL interpreted & Audio described performance: 1:30 p.m. Oct 3
Call 303-893-4100 or
TTY: 303-893-9582
Groups of 15 or more: 303-446-4829
Also: Purchase in person at The Denver Center Ticket Office, located at the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex lobby. Buy and print online at Denvercenter.org.

Please be advised that the Denver Center for the Performing Arts – denvercenter.org – is the only authorized online ticket provider for the Denver engagement of The Book of Mormon.

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