'Hephaestus' and 'Alice': Lookingglass Theatre attempting a new balancing act
by Chris Jones
If you take a look at the Web site for the venerable Hubbard Street Dance Chicago â€” or many other dance companies â€” you'll find a section labeled â€śrepertoire.â€ť There, you'll find a list, a fluid list, of the pieces that (if you'll forgive the simplification) the company is ready, willing and able to do.
Theaters â€” or, at least, nonprofit American theaters â€” tend not to do business that way.
A theater like, say, the Goodman or Steppenwolf, typically puts up a season of shows, presents each attraction for a limited amount of time, then rips the show apart, physically and metaphorically. The next season, they do a whole different slate of shows. And so it goes, each and every year. Outside of the Christmas season, shows are almost never restaged.
Lookingglass Theatre, though, is about to embark on a bit of an experiment to see whether it can make the repertory model work for itself, albeit in modified form.
On Thursday night Lookingglass will reopen, for the third time, its circus-and-myth extravaganza â€śHephaestus,â€ť in rented digs at the Goodman Theatre. The initial run is seven weeks, but Lookingglass is hoping for an extension. And in June, â€śLookingglass Aliceâ€ť will make its fourth appearance in Chicago. Ever since its debut in 2005, David Catlin's â€śAliceâ€ť has never really closed. It plays in Chicago, tours, plays here again, tours a bit more, plays here again and so on. Lookingglass is hoping that (thanks not least to the profile-raising but unconnected Tim Burton movie version of â€śAlice in Wonderlandâ€ť) â€śAliceâ€ť will play to those Magnificent Mile tourists all summer long.
Lookingglass has a particular interest in this mode of operation because, for a theater company, it is closer than most to a dance company. Its shows are very physical, long in development, expensive to mount and for the most part, it is hard to know where a Lookingglass text ends and a Lookingglass production begins.
It would, for example, be difficult to imagine â€śHephaestus,â€ť which was first staged in 2005, being performed without its creator, the Chicago-based circus performer Tony Hernandez. And if you think of Mary Zimmerman's work, for example, you'll see similarities between the repeatable pleasures of â€śThe Arabian Nightsâ€ť and say, Hubbard Street's â€śLickety-Split.â€ť
Rachel Kraft, the executive director at Lookingglass, is approaching all of this gingerly. She knows, for example, that if you want to have subscribers coming to your every show, you can't reprise the same shows from year to year. Nothing kills a subscriber base faster than repeats. So, as with â€śA Christmas Carolâ€ť at the Goodman Theatre, these shows are relying on single-ticket buyers. â€śThese shows are getting very different audience members,â€ť Kraft says.
It's also no coincidence that both â€śHephaestusâ€ť and â€śLookingglass Aliceâ€ť are family attractions. That means folks who've seen these shows before are able to bring their children or their friends. And in the case of â€śAlice,â€ť there's a whole new audience ready for the show.
Perhaps most important, the people who created these shows were eager to do them again (â€śHephaestusâ€ť now features an even-bigger human pyramid, for example).
â€śI cannot stress enough,â€ť Kraft says, â€śhow important it is that the artist wants to revisit the work.â€ť If they've had enough, then Lookingglass will have had enough.
Of course, one difference between most dance companies and these Chicago theaters is that the dance troupes have a permanent company of dancers. These days, about the only place you find permanent companies of actors is in Russia and a few other European spots (that explains why the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg's â€śUncle Vanyaâ€ť looked so good the other week on Navy Pier; it's been in the repertory for years, settling like a fine wine).
Lookingglass has an ensemble, but not a permanent, salaried company of performers. But if it's ever to get there, and how great that would be, this is probably the way.