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Acrobatic Alice Tumbles Through 'Lookingglass'

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Acrobatic Alice Tumbles Through 'Lookingglass'

Performing Arts

Acrobatic Alice Tumbles Through 'Lookingglass'

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

There are a lot of words you can use to describe Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" - whimsical, clever, hallucinatory - but muscular? Well, in a new production by a groundbreaking Chicago theater company, the Lewis Carroll classics get a very athletic interpretation. And yes, Humpty Dumpty does indeed have a great fall.

The show is currently in New York as part of a national tour, and Jeff Lunden has our report.

(Soundbite of play, "Lookingglass Alice")

Unidentified Woman #1: Inside the looking glass, I'm supposed to see myself. No, not myself.

Unidentified Man #1: Then, which hand am I holding up?

Unidentified Woman #1: My left.

Unidentified Man #1: My right.

Unidentified Woman #1: Curious sign.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. HEDY WEISS (Theater Critic, Chicago Sun Times): I don't think the point of "Lookingglass Alice" is to add up.

LUNDEN: Hedy Weiss is theater critic for the Chicago Sun Times.

Ms. WEISS: I think the point is to sort of make you feel a little bit disoriented, a little bit amazed, you know, to come out thinking how did they do that? To feel a little bit like Alice, kind of disoriented.

Ms. LAUREN HIRTE (Actress): (As Alice) Why can't you tell me just exactly where I am?

Unidentified Man #2: Precisely in between the very next thing (unintelligible) come.

LUNDEN: The show is called "Lookingglass Alice," and it's produced by the Lookingglass Theater, an award-winning Chicago based ensemble that launched the careers of actor David Schwimmer, who became a star on the hit TV series "Friends," and Tony award-winning director Mary Zimmerman. The company was launched 20 years ago by several acting students at Northwestern University who used David Schwimmer's bar mitzvah money to produce an avant-garde adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland."

David Catlin was one of those actors. He's now artistic director and says Lookingglass rarely produces traditional plays.

Mr. DAVID CATLIN (Artistic Director, Lookinglass Theatre): We often liked those stories from novels or old books. And in fact, when we started, we, you know, we didn't have he money to pay royalties for plays, so we took novels that were in the public domain and adapted them for the stage.

LUNDEN: Critic Hedy Weiss says from the start the Lookingglass matched their literary ambitions with strikingly physical productions.

Ms. HEDY: They really are shape shifters. I remember their very first production, they did an adaptation of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." And they all became big slabs of meat hanging on a kind of a conveyor belt.

LUNDEN: Ensemble member Larry DiStasi says the actors wanted to make their productions even more physical.

Mr. LARRY DISTASI (Actor): We managed to find a circus performer who would just moved to town, who would just run away from the circus. And she agreed to train us to do trapeze and teeterboard and Spanish web and all these exotic, exciting things that we always wanted to be able to do. And I ended up marrying the woman who trained us, my wife Sylvia.

LUNDEN: And with circus training under their belt, the Lookingglass has revisited "Alice in Wonderland." Artistic Director David Catlin has adapted and directed this production, which uses five actors to tell Lewis Carroll's mind-bending tales in a dynamically physical way.

Mr. CATLIN: There is so much in Lewis Carroll that is about being off balance and falling. You know, she falls down in a rabbit hole. Humpty Dumpty falls off the wall. When I go to the circus, I get that sort of off balance dizziness.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: In this production, the caterpillar is played by three actors who tumble and do a variety of gymnastic tricks.

(Soundbite of play, "Lookingglass Alice")

Unidentified Man #3: Who are you?

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, caterpillar. I hardly know this is the (unintelligible). Well, at least I knew who I was when I woke up this morning, but. Oh, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.

Unidentified Man #4: When, when? What, what?

LUNDEN: Lauren Hurt(ph), 26 years old and five feet tall, plays Alice.

Ms. LAUREN HURT: This is definitely one of those rules that kind of extends the limits and boldens horizons. There's realer acting, there's physical stuff on the ground, there's acrobatics up in the air.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: When Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole, Hurt does a routine on the Lyra, an aerial device that kind of looks like a hula-hoop. And later in the play, she flies high above the stage in a cloud swing. David Catlin explains.

Mr. CATLIN: A cloud swing is basically a thick rope that hangs in a loop. And then there's a series of, in our cases, a series of three of them that for Alice expresses the tangle of life. And at first she struggles with it and then by the end of it she's mastered it and is soaring above the audience.

LUNDEN: Doug Hara plays the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit and Humpty Dumpty. He says the actors did a lot of improvisation.

Mr. DOUG HARA (Actor): There was just a very, very free form process of trying to create stories through movement and trying to elevate the story and elevate the text with using our bodies and using the space.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: In the Mad Hatter scene, it was all about using the chairs.

Mr. HARA: We throw them around. They go into various positions. We jump over them. We run across them. We just hurl them into big, huge, messy piles, and they are part of the chaos of the Mad Hatter's tea party.

Ms. HIRTE: (As Alice) He could talk again?

Unidentified Group: (Unintelligible).

LUNDEN: The physicality of this production is not just for show. It serves the story and its themes. For instance, Humpty Dumpty's truly gasp-inducing fall dramatizes Alice's coming to terms with loss and grief. And adaptor David Catlin has added the character of Lewis Carroll, aka Charles Dodgson, the shy Oxford mathematician who created the Wonderland stories for a real child named Alice,to help frame the play. Larry DiStasi plays Dodgson and says his character gives adult meaning to a children story.

Mr. DISTASI: I think there's a big message about holding on to your childhood and not being so eager to go in a straight line forward to maturity, because there is so much that is wonderful and magical about childhood.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: "Lookingglass Alice" is currently on the road, playing at New York's New Victory Theater. It next goes to the Arden Theater in Philadelphia, then back to Chicago this summer for an open-ended run.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

SIEGEL: You can get a preview of the acrobatic Alice at our Web site, NPR.org.

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