Company members mentioned in this article: David Catlin, David Schwimmer, Larry DiStasi, David Kersnar, Doug Hara and Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi
by WEB BEHRENS, Special to the Tribune
February 6, 2005
Certain writers' works are practically constants on Chicago stages.
Shakespeare, obviously, and Chekhov. But no fewer than three adaptations of Lewis Carroll in five months? Curiouser and curiouser.
Following two wildly different interpretations in autumn of Carroll's most mercurial Wonderland, now comes a third take: "Lookingglass Alice." Speaking of threes, this world premiere will be the third time Lookingglass has tackled Carroll's fabled creations. The Feb. 13 opening marks the 18th birthday of the company -- whose first show, another " Alice ," happened when its founders were students at Northwestern University .
"It made us want to start a company," says David Catlin, adapter and director of the current production. Eighteen years ago he was on the other side of the stage, portraying the Mad Hatter and Humpty Dumpty.
It also inspired the company's name. Carroll actually wrote two fantastical tales involving the intrepid young protagonist, both of which have inspired other artists for more than 130 years -- but often, the two stories become fused into one odd hybrid. The first tale, of course, is " Alice 's Adventures in Wonderland." Although many elements from the second story are equally famous -- characters such as Tweedledum and Tweedledee -- that second title is not: "Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There."
The company's initial " Alice ," with a script by Andre Gregory and direction by co-founder David Schwimmer, went quite well.
"The very first time we did this," Catlin recalls, "Schwimmer took $500 from his bar mitzvah savings and helped produce the show. He made his money back, and we blew the profits on a big sushi dinner for the cast."
Dreaming as big as Alice , the recent graduates decided to become a company. In 1989 they officially inaugurated themselves with a new adaptation of "Through the Looking Glass," written by their own David Kersnar and again featuring Catlin and co-founder Lawrence DiStasi, who will complete his " Alice " trifecta in the current production.
Despite the same source material and even some of the same players, this third time will be its own creation. For one thing, the two men who've been a part of each production -- Catlin and DiStasi -- bring new sensibilities to the stage today, perspectives earned through adulthood and becoming fathers of young children. Another sign of change: The Actors Gymnasium's billing as a co-presenter with Lookingglass. The Evanston school, founded by DiStasi and his wife, teaches circus arts; Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi's involvement as a choreographer signals an acrobatic " Alice ."
During warm-ups for a recent rehearsal in the company's Michigan Avenue home, three of the cast members play hat tricks. Literally. Spinning bowler hats from hand to hand across their shoulders, flipping them up their raised arms, doffing and un-doffing them with a flourish. And that's just the easy stuff.
A crew member approaches DiStasi with a request: "The prop guys would love for you to ride the high unicycle with the basket." Ten minutes later, does it. The unicycle's as tall as he is, and the basket's gigantic -- you could fit a dozen Totos in it (if Oz and Wonderland were permitted to mingle).
"Preparing for theater is like a bunch of adults getting to play," DiStasi says. "We're trying to have as much fun with it as possible."
"I always have been salivating at being in the next production of ` Alice ,'" says ensemble member Doug Hara. "It's a really tasty opportunity to get into any of these characters. You can bring so much madness and imagination to it -- and kind of jump off a cliff with it, a little bit."
Clearly, there's something about Carroll that inspires risk-taking. The two recent Chicago productions, which both closed in October, are excellent examples. The Neo-Futurists presented an ambitious mosaic of an " Alice ," executed as a walking tour around Andersonville , performed in six venues and involving multiple theater companies. Umalleniay Productions performed Jim Hornor's "Enter Alice," which re-envisions Wonderland as a burlesque show.
What quality do Carroll's stories possess that make them so irresistible to other artists? "One chapter heading [in `Looking-Glass'] is called, `It's My Own Invention,'" Catlin says. "As a group of theater artists who are always seeking to try to invent something, it's really appropriate."
"His ideas in this book careen around. It's so hard to trace angles of the geometry of his brain, and how it goes from one thing to the next," says Hara. "So it does inspire. When you think about the story, you remember it in a different trajectory than he wrote it, because ` Alice ' is this kinetic moving sculpture."
ALICE 'S ADVENTURES IN OTHER LANDS
Few creations have had as wide a reach as " Alice 's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass," written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in 1865 and 1872 under the pen name Lewis Carroll. The gift of his imagination has perpetuated itself endlessly, sparking others' imaginations with exponential efficiency.
" Alice in Wonderland" (1933): Paramount Pictures made the first attempt at a star-studded " Alice ," including Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and W.C. Fields.
"Mrs. Miniver" (1942): The best picture winner features its heroine comforting her family by reading Carroll aloud in their bomb shelter during an air raid.
(1) " Alice in Wonderland" (1951): This Disney version helped ensure that Lou Bunin's version from the same era -- a French-British film with actors and puppets -- would remain obscure.
"Dreamchild" (1985): Screenwriter Dennis Potter spins a wistful tale about "the real Alice," Alice Liddell, for whom Dodgson first invented his stories.
" Alice " (1988): For those who prefer their " Alice " to be non-musical and non-kidfriendly, Czech director Jan Svankmajer created a dark version, largely animated but featuring a real girl, in which heads really do come off.
(2) " Alice in Wonderland" (1999)
Hallmark's made-for-TV version with Martin Short, Whoopi Goldberg and Ben Kingsley.
"The Matrix" (1999): This action-flick weaves a Wonderland theme by comparing its hero to Alice .
David Del Tredici: The Pulitzer Prizewinning composer has mined Carroll repeatedly, producing the folk-infused "Adventures Underground," with mandolin, banjo and accordion, and the operatic flourishes of "Final Alice." He won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize in Music for "In Memory of a Summer Day," another "Alice"-inspired piece.
(3) Jefferson Airplane: With the classic acid-pop tune from 1967, "White Rabbit," singer/songwriter (and Evanston native) Grace Slick gave an anthem to the counterculture. In her lyrics, she challenged a society that decried drug use even as it read the fantastical " Alice " to its youth (excerpt above). Of course, within a few years Slick's refrain, "Go Ask Alice," became the title of cautionary tale about a teenage girl's drug addiction.
Tom Petty: His "Don't Come Around Here No More" video is a trippy version of" Alice 's Adventures."
(4) Gwen Stefani: Her video for"What You Waiting For?" includes a Queen of Heart's maze and the mad tea party.
Robert Sabuda: Illustrators have long strived to re-imagine the There's something about `Alice' ` Alice ' Lewis Carroll's tales have inspired characters songs, movies and even a theater company. magic of original " Alice " artist John Tenniel. One recent success comes from visionary paper engineer Robert Sabuda, whose 2003 pop-up adaptation smartly sticks with the Tenniel style.
"The Annotated Alice": Edited by Martin Gardner, this book provides a comprehensive look at the culture that fueled Carroll's imagination. Ideal for either casual browsing or serious study, the 1999 "definitive edition" ("Annotated" was first published in 1960) will tell you everything you never knew you didn't know about Alice .
"Lookingglass Alice," now in previews, opens Feb. 13 and runs through March 27 at the Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave. ; 312-337-0665 or www.lookingglasstheatre.org