Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Review of "Lookingglass Alice," at the Arden, published in the News of Delaware County, 5-23-07

Middle school composition teachers often employ the following assignment: Each member of a group of students writes a sentence that hopefully proceeds from what the last member of the group had written. This student in turn passes it on to another, who adds a sentence of their own. The pattern continues until the group finishes a full composition, presumably upon a single theme or topic. While some sentences leap off the page in their brilliance, the overall result is usually haphazard in order, with many mediocre and bad lines interspersed among the good.

The Chicago based Lookingglass Theatre Company (in association with the Actor’s Gymnasium) seems to have undertaken a similar task. At the Arden Theater, this group is currently touring “Lookingglass Alice,” a collaborative piece strung together by the designers, actors, stage managers, and crew, receiving multiple updates in each theater where it appears.

The result? Somewhat similar to the assignment mentioned above.

Based upon the Alice stories of Lewis Carroll, the production careens its way through a series of skits, dances, trapeze and robe acrobatics, lively uses of stage curtains draped horizontally, clever word play, and even a unicycle. Through all this lies the central story of Alice, who has plunged down the rabbit hole into the Red Queen ruled Wonderland, and must now work her way through a chessboard of lighted squares, each one representing a stage along the way to becoming a Queen herself. In her travels, she meets the lively characters from Carroll’s novels—The White Queen, for whom time runs backward; the ever-grinning Cheshire Cat, now a jazz parlor denizen; the irksome twins Tweedle-Dee and Dum; and of course the Mad Hatter, Humpty-Dumpty, and the habitually late White Rabbit.

As bizarre as the stories of Carroll may seem, no one could ever accuse them of incoherence. But this is the chief problem of Lookingglass’ Alice—not so much that director David Catlin didn’t focus the various scenes around a single idea, but that the entire production lacks a coherence of presentation. As a result, the evening appears stilted and sloppy, as some of the skits entertain cleverly (the tea party), others are boldly inventive (lawn crochet with hedgehogs), while others fall flat (most scenes with the Red Queen), or fail to work altogether (the ball scene).

Some of this stems from the company’s insistence on visual storytelling—where each of the skits looks wildly different from the next. The result, like Alice says to the caterpillar at one point, “is all just confusing changes,” as the different elements (a dance, a chair-throwing tea party, etc.) jumble together. This, coupled with randomly called out lighting and stage cues, only furthered the general sense of confusion that clouded the entire evening, making Alice less like a piece of theater, than a circus production—except here with no Ringmaster to guide the performance.

I truly enjoyed some of it—the two aerial plunges (though expected), still thrilled, and Lauren Hirte was quite endearing, and Anthony Flemming entertainingly sly, as Alice and the Cheshire Cat. But my moments of enjoyment came like the good sentences—infrequent and random—and certainly weren’t enough to carry an entire evening by themselves.

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