Larry DiStasi and Lauren Hirte
in Lookingglass Alice
(© Michael Brosilow)
Larry DiStasi and Lauren Hirte
in Lookingglass Alice
(© Michael Brosilow)
Daring acrobatics, fabulous costumes, and a genuine sense of wonder combine to make Lookingglass Alice a treat for both kids and adults. Adapted and directed by David Catlin for Chicago's acclaimed Lookingglass Theatre Company, this delightful production is now at the New Victory as part of its national tour.

Familiarity with Lewis Carroll's original stories is useful, but not absolutely necessary, as the piece definitely stands on its own merits. Lookingglass Alice skillfully combines elements from both of the author's well-known novels. The titular character falls down the rabbit hole as in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but the basic structure of the piece is taken from Through the Looking Glass, with its chessboard analogies and Alice's desire to transform from pawn to queen.

On her journey, Alice encounters characters from both novels -- including the Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter, March Hare, Humpty Dumpty, Tweedle Dum, and Tweedle Dee. The Red Queen from the second novel also takes on characteristics of The Queen of Hearts from the first, including uttering the "Off with her head" line. In addition, Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) makes a few appearances, most notably at the beginning and end of the show.

A talented company of five actors bring the varied characters to life. Lauren Hirte plays Alice, while Larry DiStasi, Anthony Fleming III, Doug Hara, and Tony Hernandez embody all the other roles, including female ones such as the Red and White Queens. Hirte brings the right combination of politeness, pragmatism, and playfulness to her interpretation of Alice. DiStasi is a clear audience favorite, particularly for his endearing turn as the White Knight.

All five deftly handle the show's circus acts, choreographed by Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi. Hirte performs the majority of the aerial maneuvers, while Hernandez' towering Red Queen walks across the stage on stilts and DiStasi wheels about on a unicycle. Additionally, Fleming, Hara, and Hernandez are brilliant and athletic as a three-man caterpillar. One of the most stunning moments, though, is Humpty Dumpty's fall, which is simple yet gasp-inducing.

Catlin has come up with several ingenious ways of conveying the story, beginning with a stage illusion at the top of the show that has the audience peering into a looking glass and seeing a mirror image that's a bit different from what they might expect. Still, there are a few small missteps. The Mad Hatter's tea party scene goes on a bit too long, and Fleming sometimes screeches his lines (particularly as the March Hare) in an annoying manner.

Mara Blumenfeld has crafted a number of eye-popping costumes, particularly for the Red Queen. Dan Ostling's industrial set design doesn't try to create a traditional-looking Wonderland. Rather, its bare bones quality emphasizes the magic of the theater, particularly with its trap doors that allow for some of the more fantastic special effects. Christine Binder's occasionally blinding lighting and the terrific sound design by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman also make significant contributions.

While much of the play's action focuses on spectacle, the production never loses sight of the story it wants to tell. Alice's journey is not simply about moving from one wacky encounter to the next. It's about growing up, and Alice's final interaction with Dodgson is tinged with a melancholy air that signifies his letting go of this young girl who has accepted the weight of responsibility for her own life.