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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Lookingglass's circus arts put the "wonder" back in Wonderland

click to enlarge PAWN TO QUEEN: Lindsey Noel Whiting and Molly Brennan in 'Lookingglass Alice'
  • PAWN TO QUEEN: Lindsey Noel Whiting and Molly Brennan in 'Lookingglass Alice'

Alice in Wonderland may have enchanted children and adults for a century and a half, but the adaptations of Lewis Carroll's classics can be as obstinate as a rebellious chess piece or a disappearing feline. The books essentially consist of one unforgettable vignette after another, bedazzled with nonsense dialogue that seldom drives the plot in any conventional way. Theatrical or cinematic versions of Alice frequently prove episodic to a fault. Tim Burton circumvented the originals' obstreperous storytelling by recasting the books as a feminist take on a Hollywood-style heroine.

Lookingglass Theatre's adaptation of Alice in Wonderland and Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass succeeds partly by swapping Carroll's literary contortions with physical acrobatics. In Lookingglass Alice, the heroine (the remarkably resourceful Lindsey Noel Whiting) discovers new perspectives not by changing stature, but by bouncing from floor to ceiling on bungee chords or swinging on loops of rope. The introduction of circus arts to Lewis Carroll's imagery feels not just natural but somehow inevitable, from the three-actor caterpillar to Humpty Dumpty's (Kevin Douglas) breath-taking fall from atop an extension ladder. Thanks to such an almost ridiculously talented and flexible cast, Alice's audience thrills to a show in which anything really could happen.

At times, David Catlin's script makes an advantage of potential problems. The Mad Tea Party tends to be intentionally frustrating as "the stupidest tea party I have ever been to," but the Lookingglass version gives it a dark but fitting subtext. The Mad Hatter (Douglas), the March Hare (a sizzling Anthony Fleming III) and the Dormouse (Molly Brennan) are caught in a maddening Twilight Zone-worthy time loop that prevents the party from every ending. The vignette also features hilarious business involving folding chairs tossed with (seemingly) reckless abandon and other bits of physical comedy worthy of classic vaudevillians. Overall, the White Knight becomes one of Alice's closest advisors, while the White Rabbit gets a short shrift.

At times, the interactions feel more like chances for the performers to build their strength between death-defying feats than drama that could stand on its own. Punning lines like "Keep the beat. Try not to lose your tempo," don't add a lot, and Alice's conversations with Charles Dodgson (Doug Hara) -- Lewis Carroll's real name -- take a little too long to make fairly simple points, so the action has lulls. But since the physical acting communicates so much of the relationships, and the characters are so famous, non-English speakers would probably enjoy Lookingglass Alice every bit as much as those who are fluent.

Catlin uses Alice's chessboard motif to convey both a coming-of-age motif and the importance of retaining one's childlike sense of play. Consequently, sight gags involving the reverse-aging White Queen speak directly to the that theme, without too much explication. Other flourishes, like the hip-hop dancing of Tweedledee and Tweedledum and the Red King's balancing act atop a giant ball, seem to obey the laws of dream logic. Overall, Lookingglass Alice can make jaded audiences feel like children who gasp with wonder, and only occasionally fidget in their seats.

Lookingglass Alice. Through May 2. $20-$50. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. 404-733-4650.

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