To get the gossamer-light irony of Lewis Carroll on stage, you need a lot of people doing heavy labor, which is exactly what’s going on with Syracuse Stage’s current production of Lookingglass Alice. The Lookingglass Company of Chicago has been running Alice for three years, and to remount the show here it needed to revamp much of the venerable Archbold Theatre. This calls for a glossy new stage floor rife with nearly invisible trapdoors, an overhead aluminum truss capable of holding 4,300 pounds, and a crew of 20 to run several contraptions. Out come the first two rows of seats to be replaced by steep-raked on-stage seating, so that from the regular seats we see smiling audience members behind the performers, reminding us of the contrivance of all this hard work.
The results sure ain’t Disney. But what we see, a spectacle using the physicality of contemporary cutting-edge theater, comes close to the wit, surrealism and astonishment of Carroll’s original creations.
Most people are so familiar with the elements of the Alice story we forget that there are actually two books. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) brings allusions to card games and chance, and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) plays with extended metaphors about chess and navigating one’s way toward goals.
Given that the Chicago company’s name was Lookingglass before writer-director David Catlin conceived of this show, it’s hardly a surprise he should have favored the second book, while retaining some elements of the first. As a dramatic character the imperious Red Queen (Molly Brennan) of the second is more fun than the Queen of Hearts from the first. Additionally, the chess metaphor gives Alice (Lindsey Noel Whiting) a dramatic itinerary as she steps from square to square, gaining maturity. Plotting, such as it is, turns out to be the least compelling element in a show more given to surprise.
Things begin quietly enough, with Alice in a Victorian drawing room, her chessboard before her and a large mirror or lookingglass above a fireplace. When she goes to the glass she does not find her own reflection but rather that of a bald, impish gentleman (Doug Hara), who mimics her every move, like Harpo and Groucho Marx in their classic routine from the 1933 movie Duck Soup. Once she deigns to touch the mirror, Pow!, the illusion of reality vanishes and she passes through the lookingglass to Carroll’s alternative universe. She willingly quaffs the magic potion, and scurries through the rabbit hole, actually a lyra, or an acrobat’s hoop. Down she falls through layers of consciousness, represented kabuki-style by long undulating sheets of blue silk.
Advance publicity for Lookingglass Alice has emphasized an element of circus, like the pictures of Alice before the giant figure or the Red Queen on stilts or the program’s cover illustration of Alice swinging on slack ropes. Fittingly, the title page for the show cites an association with Actor’s Gymnasium of Chicago, and perhaps a quarter of the action in Alice is a kind of gymnastic display.
But it would be a mistake to assume that the Lookingglass company is a spinoff of Cirque de Soleil, with all that Las Vegas excess. Instead, Alice’s aesthetic feels closer to that of certain modern dance companies like Pilobolus or the Imago Theatre of Portland. Not only does Lookingglass Alice have a drier wit, but every invention is meant to drive the narrative.
There’s nary a dull moment out of the 90 minutes, presented without intermission. Old shoes rain from the sky, bicycles come apart in one’s hands, and huge balloons bounce out to the waiting audience, their gleeful palms extended to slap them back. Humpty Dumpty suffers a great fall, the most breathtaking death scene in the history of Syracuse Stage.
All the Alice characters appear, including author Carroll himself, albeit deconstructed and reassembled. There’s the Cheshire Cat (Anthony Fleming III), the Mad Hatter (Samuel Taylor), the Red Queen, with players taking multiple roles. Fleming, an African-American man, as Tweedle Dum, somehow looks like the twin of Molly Brennan, a white woman, as Tweedle Dee. Every one of these entrances is explosive, as when the Cheshire Cat descends from the balcony. The audience favorite is probably the Caterpillar, the striped-jersey trio of Fleming, Brennan and Taylor, all walking for a while on their hands. Describing any more is a fruitless task and ruins the fun. You gotta be there to see them.
The five members of the Chicago-based cast bring a mix of experiences, starting with relative newcomer Lindsey Noel Whiting as Alice. It’s not just because her Alice claims she’s 7½ without making theatergoers snort in disbelief, but the actress also has the most physically demanding role. What will stick in audience minds the longest is her work on three coarse-grained slack ropes, the extended scene portrayed in the program’s cover photo. The line “doing the high wire without a net” might be a worthy coinage, but the slack rope looks even more demanding. While hanging upside down she has to wrap her ankles in three different loops until she can swing out over the audience. Whiting performed this role in a Louisville production before coming to Syracuse. She might be the star, but this doesn’t look like something one would want to do for a very long time.
It would be misleading to rank the other four as each is given such different assignments and each has a star turn. The audience favorite is Anthony Fleming, a natural, spontaneous comedian and the most articulate of the bunch. Even his Mohawk haircut is funny. Molly Brennan faces almost as many physical demands as Whiting does in the title role, and also glides easily through lightning-fast changes of roles and props. Her “Off with her head!” is a verbal guillotine, but later, in another character, she pulls cream off her nose and squeals, “It tastes like treacle!”
Tightly as Alice is choreographed, some improvisation just bursts through the text, such as a split-second riff on the unexpected fascination for the sport of curling, engendered by the Vancouver Olympics.
Doug Hara essays the widest range of characters, starting with Alice’s mirror image through the White Queen in drag to an adroit unicyclist, with a mewing baby along the way. Perhaps the severest demands fall (if that’s the right word) to Samuel Taylor, who handles the most abrupt change of tone when he gives us the only non-comic character in the show, hyper-neurotic Lewis Carroll, as assumed persona of Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson. But his Humpty Dumpty stops the show.
Giving so many pleasures to the eye, Lookingglass Alice is not always so successful with Carroll’s verbal humor. The best gag comes with the introduction of the not-quite-nonsense poem “Jabberwocky,” while Alice herself appears to be a kind of mock monster, struggling to disentangle herself from surplus dresses pulled over her head. Perhaps because we all know the words of “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” stagy attempts to capitalize on Carroll’s wit fade before the ear. Some of Whiting’s words were hard to understand, perhaps because she was the only player without a body mike. Other lines seemed deliberately obscured, like Charlie Chaplin’s sniggers in City Lights or anything from Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean appearances.
The program cites 11 other Lookingglass backstage professionals, who may or may not have appeared in Syracuse. Should they be reading, we give extra applause to the original (but allusive) score by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman, Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi’s often breakneck choreography, and Mara Blumenfeld’s funky costumes, some of which range from the fantasy kingdoms of Carlo Gozzi to vintage science fiction.
The Archbold Theatre, built 95-plus years ago as a movie palace, has never housed anything quite like Lookingglass Alice.
This production runs through March 14. See Times Table for information.