"But how does one know if they've gone mad?" asks Alice of the elusive Cheshire Cat as he swings on a rail, hanging twenty feet off the ground. "You see, a dog growls when it's angry, and wags its tail when it's pleased," he answers. "Now, I growl when I'm pleased, and wag my tail when I'm angry." He grins and disappears, leaving a baffled Alice to contemplate the difference between madness and sanity, the similarities they share, and whether or not they might just be one in the same.
Set in the alternate world that exists beyond – or through – the parlor mirror, Lookingglass Alice is based on Lewis Carroll's sequel to the ever-familiar Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: Through the Looking-Glass. So instead of going down the rabbit hole, we literally step through the looking-glass into a dreamy (and sometimes nightmarish) world of opposites, nonsense, and whimsy, as if we too have dozed off after a game of chess and awake to find a new dimension waiting for us above the fireplace mantle.
With or without its befitting name, the Lookingglass Theatre couldn't be a more apt setting in which to tell this tale, with its open, industrial structure taking the viewer out of the space of traditional theatre and promising something more immediate and exciting.
Part children's entertainment, part Cirque du Soleil, part vicarious drug trip, Alice takes the audience on a journey simultaneously magical and dark, funny and frightening, alarming and calming, and above all, surreal. Characters have different proportions through the looking-glass, some excessively tall, some uncharacteristically small; one can run fast for hours and wind up in the very same spot from which they started; Red Queens float on umbrellas in the ocean; cats play with oversized balls of yarn (or is it you who are under-sized?); Alice spins so fast on a suspended hoop you don't know which end is her head and which are her legs – the visual equivalent of how both the audience and the heroine feel after their disorienting passage into the world within the mirror.
A very physical show, Alice is the sort of spectacle meant to be enjoyed by all types of audiences. Young children might be best left at home – the loud noises, confusion, and surreality of it all can be a little overwhelming – but it's undoubtable that physical feats like continuous two-person backflips, the lifting and balancing of actors as though they were weightless, and an anxious finale where Alice wraps herself in ropes mid-air and falls without hitting the ground will impress adults, teens, and kids alike.
Remarkably executed by a vastly talented five-person cast, Alice is less a play than it is an experience. It's colorful and unpredictable. What it lacks in plot, it makes up for in intrigue. Where it forgets logic, it remembers absurdity. You may run in place for ninety minutes and end up in the self-same spot, but you'll have gained a gleeful acceptance of your own madness and the insight that our world is not always as it looks.
Lookingglass Alice, directed by David Catlin, is playing at the Water Tower Water Works space at 821 N Michigan Ave through February 15th, 2015.