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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Lookingglass Alice
Brings Circus Art to the McCarter

Tony Hernandez and
Lauren Hirte

With the most athletically talented, death-defying company of five actor-acrobats you are ever likely to see, Chicago's acclaimed Lookingglass Theatre Company seems to have taken over every nook and cranny of McCarter's large Matthews Theatre for its theatrical circus presentation, Lookingglass Alice. This touring Lookingglass signature piece features very impressive acrobatics and clever, eye-pleasing stage design. Sadly, director David Catlin's eviscerated adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice stories generates precious little in the way of intellectual stimulation or emotional involvement. As a result, I found Lookingglass Alice to be a long, arduous sit for most of its intermissionless 85 minutes.

Lookingglass Alice roughly follows the outline of the Alice's Adventures in Wonderland sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass. Alice passes through a mirror, drinks from a bottle labeled "drink me" causing her to shrink, and then meets the Red Queen who promises that she will make her a Queen if she can pass through eight boxes of a giant chess board successfully. Alice has a series of encounters with a variety of Carroll's fantastical creations (and Humpty Dumpty borrowed by Carroll from Mother Goose), culminating in Alice's coronation celebration, and her awakening from what has been her dream.

I haven't the foggiest idea what Alice does in each sequence to advance through her eight boxes. With the abstract staging and the emphasis on physicality, I often was unable to decipher exactly what was happening moment to moment. As the production moved more and more into circus mode, it became clear that the adaptation was tailored to present gymnastics and related circus arts (i.e., clowning and juggling), and without regard to illuminating Alice. Carroll's whimsy and puns, eclectic music, dance, aggressive lighting and other stage design effects, and the stage manager's directions over the loud speaker, are thrown into the pot by adaptor-director Catlin only to brighten the circus.

Lookingglass Alice will likely bring pleasure to the myriad fans of Cirque du Soleil. In fact, Cirque du Soleil is surely the precursor of and inspiration here, and Lookingglass Alice delivers the modern circus goods of Soleil at their highest level. The cleverly designed opening sequence provides contrasting opening scenes for the audience in the theatre auditorium, and the one in the stage seats. One actor makes his entrance leaping from the mezzanine level box seats. One actor walks blindfolded across the outer edge of the mezzanine without a wire. You can scarcely believe what you are seeing when Humpty Dumpty falls from the top of a wall (actually here a metal ladder) from about thirty feet in the air. Less impressive is the climbing on the backs of the seats of audience members, and downright unpleasant was the embarrassing embrace which was forced on a late middle-aged audience member sitting in the first row of stage seats on opening night.

The necessarily limited but attractive scenic design is by Daniel Ostling. The otherwise fine lighting design of Chris Binder shines three banks of flood lights into the eyes of the auditorium audience repeatedly (director Catlin is likely responsible for this "effect"). The circus rigging design is by Scott Osgood.

As an actress, the adult Lauren Hirte is a pleasing Alice. As an acrobat, Hirte is extraordinary. Performing her aerial work on ropes, a hoop or whatever, she is always strong and graceful. Each of the five male actors play multiple roles. Each performs pleasantly, but it is their graceful athleticism that stands out. Doug Hara, whose Humpty Dumpty fall is extraordinary, also plays the Mad Hatter and White Rabbit. Performing on very high stilts, Tony Hernandez adds good detail to the role of the Red Queen. He plays Tweedle Dum and the Dormouse for good measure. Leaper extraordinaire is Cheshire Cat, Anthony Fleming III. He is also Tweedle Dee and the March Hare. Larry DiStasi plays Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) in the excellent opening sequence. Thereafter, he adds the White Knight and the White Queen to his gallery here. The tumbling Hara, Hernandez and Fleming each play one third of the caterpillar.

In recent seasons, Lookingglass has brought us extraordinarily entertaining and illuminating adaptations of classic works —Ovid's Metamorphoses, the Odyssey, and The Secret in the Wings not coincidentally all three were adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman). They have earned an off-night.

Lookingglass Alice continues performances (Eves: Wed., Thurs. & Sun (excluding. 1/28) 7:30 PM/ Fri. & Sat. 8 PM; Mats: Sat. 3 PM/ Sun. 2 PM) through January 28, 2007 at the McCarter Theatre Center (Matthews Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787. online

Lookingglass Alice adapted and directed by David Catlin

Cast (in alphabetical order)
Larry Distasi
Anthony Fleming Iii
Doug Hara
Tony Hernandez
Lauren Hirte (Alice)

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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