Chess, circus, and the game of life

Here is a riddle for you: What do a game of chess and life have in common?* 

Inside the tidy, rule-driven universe of a chess board, seven-year-old Alice stumbles upon the inexplicable and absurd rules of a new world. Every fledgling chess player will empathize as Alice is met with surprise after surprise in this lively production of Lookinglass Alice (returning to Lookingglass Theatre in association with the Actors Gymnasium after a seven-year hiatus). She meets a clumsy Knight who preens and collides, a frantic rabbit with time-management issues, a talking cat who spouts the most absurd idioms, and two imperiously distracted queens, to name a few of the amusing characters in this classic play, which weds physical theater with the mathematical plot to Lewis Carroll’s less-known sequel to Alice in Wonderland. 

Lookingglass Alice
Through 7/31: Wed-Thu 7 PM, Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 2 and 7:30 PM; also Tue 5/24, 6/7, 6/21, 7/5, and 7/19, 7 PM; Thu 5/19, 5/26, 6/2, 6/16, 6/30, 7/14, and 7/28, 1:30 PM; Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan, 312-337-0665, lookingglasstheatre.org, $60-$80.

Lookinglass Alice is as alive physically as it is verbally, flawlessly blending puns and riddles with tumbling and tricks. Circus and the works of Lewis Carroll are a good match, as both share a love of flipping expectations on their heads. And yet, Lookingglass Theatre accomplishes what many in the circus world have often attempted and failed to do: to fluidly blend movement and spoken word, serving powerful metaphors with a one-two punch. 

Alice, as you may recall, likes to stomp her foot at each absurd notion that challenges her understanding of order, and yet herself wishes for the impossible—to achieve the status of queenhood and escape the random mayhem of life as a pawn. But first she must cross the chess board and avoid defeat, helped along by the other pieces. There is a familiar lesson for young Alice there; work hard, follow the rules, and you too will get ahead one day (or end up as a head on a plate if you slip up). The problem is, what are the rules? How can one “win” if the rules are forever changing? The Cheshire Cat, played by the ebullient Adeoye, does his best to advise, and the show tilts into a rhythm of adventures and trials, punctuated with the absurd wordplay of Lewis Carroll.

For the audience, the familiar story becomes electric when slapstick and physical theater overlap with puns—and mouth-dropping stunts add a hint of danger or else a smack of metaphor. Performers slide down poles and swing from ropes, pose riddles and implore the audience to sing along to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Bat,” or to join a tea party that goes horribly wrong because time has stopped functioning properly. 

Seamless light and sound design (by Christine A. Binder and Ray Nardelli, respectively) and several gasp-inducing scenic surprises support the antics of the performers, most of whom play more than one role and are versed in multiple circus disciplines. In addition to Adeoye’s Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter (Kareem Bandealy) and the White Rabbit (Michel Rodriguez Cintra) especially keep the pace rollicking, popping up from holes in the floor, dancing on chairs, and melding acrobatics, unicycle, and juggling into their plots, all the while keeping the audience in stitches. Unflappable Molly Hernández as Alice is single-minded in her desire to be queened, and to keep up with the citizens of chessland. Her aerial acts range from joyous to graceful expressions on lyra, cloud swing, and aerial bungee and are perfect metaphors for her topsy-turvy experiences as well as for her transformation. The White Knight, clowned by Micah Figueroa (filling in for Samuel Taylor), brought an especially joyous layer of hilarity to the rhythms of the show.

Adapter-director David Catlin and artistic director Heidi Stillman have reimagined a classic at a time when many of us are still reeling from rapid changes in the modern world, and though its a temporary balm, thankfully our protagonist Alice still demonstrates how to see past her own reflection in the mirror, past the noise and nonsense, to a world where curiosity and play can solve any (or most) riddles.

*Riddle answer: They’re both played upon a stage (Shakeapeare says so).

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