Friday, July 23, 2010

Blog Exclusive Review: Les Enfants Terribles: Prom Night

Sometimes Infantile, Not Terrible

(left to right) Scott Ray Merchant, Casey Kells, Chris Mueller, Alex Kyger, Eric Swanson, Brian Rad. Photo by Tom Hartmon.

When my roommate, brilliant actor/playwright/novelist Jessica Cluess, and I see a particularly strange piece of theatre or film, she generally turns to me with a shrug and says "Well, that happened." In a way it's a compliment: the art has, after all, provoked a reaction that's hard to put into words. There are many worse things a play or movie can do than weird you out. But if that's all it does, it's hard to argue that it's really effective--weirdness alone doesn't stick for long.

Well, Les Enfants Terribles: Prom Night certainly happened. What exactly was it that happened? Well, we're in a gym, decorated in patented tacky prom style (Shaun Renfro did the witty set). Just as a group of students (Jonathan Helvey, RyanLempka, and Amanda Beth Miller) are about to draw the name of the Prom King, Les Enfants burst in. Les Enfants, played by Casey Kells, Alex Kyger, Scott Ray Merchant, Christopher Paul Mueller, Brian Rad, and Eric Ryan Swanson, are a group of grotesque figures. They are wearing brownish, stained unitards, with foam-rubber growths of various kinds underneath--one has large, clunky feet, another gigantic breasts, the third a phallus that goes straight up to his sternum and what appear to be giant rabbit ears on his head. They chase out the people and proceed to enact a grotesque parody of the processes of courtship and prom royalty election, interspersed with bizarre a cappella performances of songs ranging from "All You Need Is Love" to "Tubthumping", violent beatings, and declarations of "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry." In less than an hour, it's done.

It's hard to make a recommendation on this show, because it depends so thoroughly on the taste of the audience members. For those who like aggressive, grotesque, bizarre humor, it's sidesplitting (and there were some in the audience). Others are likely to find it intensely unpleasant. I fell somewhere in between--moments made me laugh, others made me uncomfortable, and there were sections where I just got bored or felt like the show was repeating itself. The cast is clearly talented: they create clear and sharp characterizations and throw themselves into the show with complete commitment and unwavering intensity. (All are recent graduates of Roosevelt University.) It just doesn't add up to much, in the end. It's too weird to be silly, escapist comedy, but if there was any satirical point or commentary on humanity, it didn't come through to me. The show may just be going for "bizarre provocation with uncomfortable laughs", in which case it succeeds on those limited grounds--it's certainly bizarre and provocative, and often funny. It hasn't yet cohered into a compelling show, but it will be interesting to see how the group matures over time.

One important note: if you do go, dress as lightly as possible. The night we went, it was absolutely stifling in there, despite the best efforts of a few fans. Hopefully Red Tape will come up with another plan to keep the place cool, but for now, wear shorts and sandals if possible, and bring water.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Blog Exclusive Review: Hesperia at the Right Brain Project

Full Disclosure: Playwright Randall Colburn is a friend of mine, and I'm friendly with director Nathan Robbel as well. I stand by the fairness and honesty of the review, but take it as you will.

Searching for Redemption

(Billy Fenderson and Katy Albert)

The desire for redemption is powerful: who hasn't felt they have sins that need to be washed away? But the drive to get away from your own sins can hurt other people horribly. That's the conflict that animates Hesperia, the second play in the Randall Colburn season at the Right Brain Project. It's not a perfect play, but it does enough things exceptionally well to be well worth a trip.

Claudia (Natalie DiCristofano) used to be a porn star named Jess. But one year ago, she fled L. A. and her old life and ran to Hesperia, a small, conservative, evangelical midwestern town near the one where she grew up. She's engaged to Trick (Nick Freed), the local youth pastor, and feels that she's gotten beyond her past. But now Ian (Billy Fenderson), her former lover and porn partner, who went to LA with her, has also come to Hesperia, looking for the same solution.

It's a plot setup ripe for sensationalism, which Colburn entirely avoids. In fact, the play does a remarkably good job at showing the appeal of religious conservatism. It was quite a surprise for someone, like myself, who has never been particularly religious--I felt the sense of belonging, of having one's toughest problems cared for, that must make an overwhelmingly religious communities so sustaining. The play is full of revelations like that--Colburn has a razor-sharp eye for the details of human behavior, and it's a joy to see moment after moment that's funny, moving, and painfully recognizable. (The production certainly helps in this respect.) It's rare for a play to have so many uncomfortably honest moments, and something special for this reason alone.

But while the truth of the characters and situations and the quality of the acting (more on that later) make the show consistently interesting to watch, the plotting doesn't always help. There isn't much plot tension to hold the show together. A plot strand that should provide an air of tension and sense of urgency feels perfunctory and is poorly devloped, such that when it gets resolved it almost doesn't register. It's not that it was ever supposed to be a highly plotty show (or at least it doesn't seem that way). But at this point it still has moments where it feels meandering, even though it's less than 90 minutes long, and the ending doesn't pack quite the punch that it should. (I'd also like another play, or a second act, to see what happens to these characters in the next few years, but that's beyond the scope of this review.)

Robbel knows Colburn's work (they collaborated on Pretty Penny a few months ago), and he leads his actors to excellent performances. DiCristofano has the least knowable character onstage (Claudia keeps a lot back), but she's always believable and sympathetic, even at her worst. Fenderson is likable, if a little frightening, as a man overwhelmed by the chance to will his past away. Freed is exceptional, making a character who could easily be a buffoon into the most sympathetic one onstage. Katy Albert, as a potential love interest for Ian, gives a hugely appealing and natural performance, despite the fact that her subplot needs more development.

Hesperia isn't a perfect play (and I think that Pretty Penny was better), but it's still damn impressive, and the folks at the RBP clearly know how to showcase Colburn's work to its best advantage. It's worth checking out for anyone interested in quality new plays, and hopefully a prelude to bigger things from all concerned.

Monday, July 19, 2010

I Write Lots of Things

Here are two posts I wrote for other sites:

The first is "My Cherrywood Nights or David Cromer Stole My Childhood," a short essay on my experiences in the cast of Cherrywood that I wrote for Eric Roach and Anderson Lawfer's very funny "Cherrywatch" blog.
I've also got a new review up, of Bruised Orange Theatre's Daddy Long Legs. It's a one act noirish comic thriller performed at the on the lakefront in Rogers Park. It doesn't always work (the ending falls flat) but there's a lot of fun to be had in sitting on the beach and watching the proceedings.

Here's the Cherrywood piece:

Many of you, reading the various articles about Cherrywood (some of which are even based on fact, and interviews which actually took place) might have gotten the impression that David Cromer’s production is the Chicago premiere of Kirk Lynn’s 2004 Austin-set mindfuck. But it is not so. Shade Murray directed it as his first year directing project while getting his MFA at Northwestern. This is the production that Cromer saw, which got him interested in the script in the first place. Cromer then worked on it in a student production at Act One Studios, and now here it is at Mary-Arrchie, the Greatest Chicago Theatre Event In History.

But who remembers the previous productions? I do. I was in Shade Murray’s Cherrywood (and who hasn’t wanted to get in Shade Murray’s Cherrywood?), and I can tell the tale. Cromer used my experiences, from when I was a tender lad of 21, to create his play, and I feel used. And sort of exhilarated.

Shade chose twelve of the best and brightest—or at least twelve of the hardest to embarrass and least likely to ask “what’s the point of this?”—to be his intrepid cast. We viewpointed, we created unscripted moments, we did sun salutations, we didn’t know how the show was ending until about three nights before we opened. It was a little bit of a cult.

We had no budget for tech and no stage manager, so there were no light cues, the set was mostly made of cardboard boxes, the costumes were pulled from storage, and the sound cues came from Shade running his iPod from the booth, with speakers sitting on the back of the stage.

And it was pretty awesome. Yes, twelve people doesn’t make a realistic party, and yes, the script can get a little bogged down and/or weird. But I don’t think I’ll ever feel the same kind of ownership over a play again. We built that damn show with our bare hands. We had three performances in a hundred-some seat theatre and were done. (And it was the last show I did before my graduation the next month.)

But then Cromer saw it, and suddenly we weren’t so special any more. He just had to do it with a greater degree of difficulty: four times the cast size, an actual set, a reconfigured theatre, critics, and on and on. And of course he’s David Cromer, so he’s watched like a hawk by everyone, and doing something like this…well, that’s newsworthy.

So I’m torn between being happy that more people will get to know this show and being jealous that Cromer’s version has gotten way more attention. I’m no longer special for having in Cherrywood—in fact, theatre people in Chicago who haven’t are harder to find these days. And doubtless Cromer took some stuff from our production, or made some changes that feel wrong, or generally messed with my memories of the show. Things will doubtless drive my crazy about the production.

But fuck it. I’m still going.

And here's the review of Daddy Long Legs:

As far as set designs go, it's hard to compete with Lake Michigan. Daddy Long Legs sets up a few rows of chairs on Leone Beach in Rogers Park, overlooking the water, and unfolds a tasty little gangster story for 50 minutes. The setting sometimes bolsters the story and sometimes distracts, but even when interest flags, it's easy to enjoy an early-evening hour on the beach.

For those with a taste for noirish tales, the show's a lot of fun. It's 1929, shortly after the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Bobby Widdle (Clint Sheffer, who also wrote the play) is meeting Mars Streznick (John Arthur Lewis) on the beach. Streznick arrives hauling a burlap sack filled with body parts — the remains of a hit. Bobby wants to find his wife, and Mars seems to know where she is. But he's not saying much, trying to convince Bobby to leave town while he can.

Sheffer does a good job teasing the audience with each morsel of information, keeping us hooked into the twisty plot. The script balances funny and suspenseful moments, while offering up some delightfully stylized dialogue and razor-sharp wordplay. He and Lewis each create compelling portraits of the feckless hoods: They are tough and dangerous, with something to hide, but aren't quite as smart or hard boiled as they think they are. Both are greatly helped by Anne Sonneville's costumes and Wes Clark's fight choreography. Unfortunately, the last 10 minutes, when the answers are revealed, manage to be both predictable and confusing. It's a disappointing end to an otherwise fun show.

And then there's the setting. The panorama is huge, and we could see everything from bright skies to dark clouds spewing lightning was visible at once. It was gorgeous and dramatic — and at its best moments, so was the play.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Blog Exclusive Interview: Nathan Robbel of the Right Brain Project

The much discussed problem with the new play process in America is one of lots of development that rarely leads to actual production. Plays get workshopped to death. Well, this isn't happening at the Right Brain Project. Not only has artistic director Nathan Robbel programmed a three-play season of world premieres, they are all by the same playwright: Randall Colburn. The season started with Pretty Penny, which I really enjoyed. It now continues with Hesperia, the surprisingly tender story of a former porn star who seeks a redemptive future in the midwestern town where she was born. I talked to Robbel about why Right Brain chose to devote their season to Colburn's work and the process they've been using to bring his plays to life. I'll be seeing the show Friday, so I'll report back.

How did you first encounter Randall's work?
I was first introduced to Randall through a mutual friend of ours who felt I would take to his scripts and his style. She had been familiar with his work for some time, and I had directed her in a number of projects in the past few years. The first time I saw his work, however, was at a short play festival with Dream Theatre Company. The piece was short, obscure and non-traditional. But I remember being impressed at how quickly and efficiently he was able to create deep characters with so little.

What made you decide that he fit with Right Brain's mission and aesthetic, and how would you describe them?
The primary tenet of our mission statement has always been to find unique and unexpected ways to connect the audience to the actor. Whether that has been through breaking the fourth wall, physically touching the audience, or simply delivering something non-traditional, we've always felt that theatre should be a communal experience beyond simply sitting in the dark and watching a story unfold. It excites us when we can find ways to get the audience closer to the story, characters, and the overall "theatrical experience" than might be expected.

As far as our aesthetic is concerned... The short answer is that our aesthetic is highly influenced and dictated by our resources. We're constantly asking ourselves how can we best serve the story and deliver a satisfying, sometimes larger-than-life theatrical experience within our limitations - and how do we turn our limitations into an advantage? We've often labeled our shows (rather tongue-in-cheek) as "epic minimalism." Instead of apologizing and finding ways to hide our limitations, we choose to embrace them and find ways to weave them into the fabric of the production as a positive means to an end - which is telling a story as strongly and as emotionally truthful and resonant as possible. I would like to think that if our productions were mounted in a larger space or with significantly larger resources, that they wouldn't be nearly as effective. We strive to make choices that embrace what we have to their fullest potential.

Randall's work fits this mission and aesthetic particularly well. Take Pretty Penny, for example. While I'm always hesitant to apply labels to scripts, one could call the script grounded in realism. It could easily be done on a huge budget with multiple sets and loads of props to accurately depict the "real" world, and that may be the obvious choice. And we could have exhausted ourselves attempting to make that happen. But due to our limited budget, we chose to forgo all of those things. By committing to miming everything in the show, hopefully the audience accepted the convention from the very first scene and instead concentrated fully on these characters and their inner struggles. Suddenly Randall's characters, which are full of nuance, complex motivations, and deep-rooted issues, were a force to be reckoned with. There is literally nothing in between the audience and the psyche of these people. We watch their faces and their eyes, as there is nothing else on stage to see. Suddenly quiet moments between characters become extremely important. In fact, a scene can become ABOUT those quiet moments. And when we're forced to slow down and give over our full attention, a great actor can take us with them on their emotional journey. Randall's work is full of these tender, quiet moments, and given what we have to work with, they become the centerpiece of the production.

And from there, why a full season of his shows? It's a pretty big risk to take on someone who isn't well known to the general public.
Truth be told, it just felt right. When I saw a staged reading of Hesperia, it knocked my socks off. There was so much nuance happening just in between the lines of the script - it didn't need any bells and whistles. In fact, I can only imagine that layering in elements of that sort could only detract from what I was witnessing. I felt close to these actors, and their struggles resonated. It was powerful stuff. In an intimate space like ours and with committed, excited actors, I knew we could fully harness what I felt Randal was trying to achieve with his scripts. It just seemed right.

And as far as risk is concerned... I fully believe that if one does work they're passionate about, and does it well, the audience will eventually come. I strive to never compromise what feels right artistically for the RBP. Sure, when one considers we could be doing more established work that may draw in larger audiences, there's a risk to devoting an entire season to one local playwright. But I believe in Randall's work, and I believe that we're a worthy vehicle for his scripts. We can only hope that people catch on, and will appreciate what we're doing. I've been completely satisfied thus far, and I believe our actors and our crew feel the same.

Had you done any readings or workshops of his stuff, or did you just jump in to produce?
We held a reading of Pretty Penny for our own sake very early in the process. It was kind of an opportunity to hear it out loud, chat about it, and give Randall a chance to approach the script again with fresh eyes. But really, most of the work on the script came from Randall, our wonderful dramaturg Jamie Bragg, and me chatting about the script and what we wanted to accomplish, and what was within our means to bring to life given our resources. Because this was a new work, our rehearsal time was extended by about a week and a half or so, in case we encountered the need for re-writes. But really, that was about it. I went with my gut. I loved the script, and I loved his style, and I had to trust that our audience would as well. And I felt we could successfully work together as an ensemble to make this work efficiently. In the end, we were extremely lucky to find the cast we did, as they were highly professional, willing to play, and they jumped right in. And we've been just as lucky with the cast and crew of Hesperia. I couldn't be happier with the enthusiastic people I'm working with. It's a joy to produce with people so excited about a project.

Pretty Penny is about a young woman who starts a job at a no-limit phone sex line. It looks at desire and identity, without being exploitative. Do Hesperia and the third play of the season explore similar themes? What can we expect?
Hesperia most certainly follows a similar theme, but down a slightly different path. While it's a very different show, both in terms of story and presentation, its themes are connected, and these characters definitely feel like they exist in the same world - just very different corners of it. Pretty Penny's characters are in various stages of attempting to redefine and reinvent themselves on their own terms, to varying degrees of success - and sex and sexuality is the catalyst. Hesperia explores a woman's attempt to do the same, but more specifically she is trying to find a purity and an innocence that she feels she has strayed from. She is seeking redemption, and in many ways, a return to childhood. She latches onto the small town of Hesperia and the Evangelical Christian environment that permeates the town to do so. But like Pretty Penny, Hesperia delves into some uncomfortable places - specifically in its raw depiction of sexual desire that is refreshing and almost disturbingly innocent in a way I've never before encountered in a script.

Our third show of the season, entitled Halfshut, will hopefully go to some similar places as well. I can't outright say what to expect, except that we're striving to blur the line between actor and character more than ever before, and we hope to continue to dwell on similar themes of identity and the role that sexuality plays in that.

So give your final pitch: why is it important for you to produce a full season of Randall Colburn's plays, and why should audiences come see it?
When so many new scripts attempt to tackle big ideas, political or social trends and upsets, Randall's plays are simple and there is a familiarity to his characters that he achieves through small moments. And it's these small moments that we can all relate to. A song that was playing at our prom when we knew we were in love, or the awkward anticipation of holding someone's hand, or the remembrance of an event that touched our heart. These are good people, with their own private struggles, and our vulnerability can be seen in those small moments. While we're surrounded by large political and social issues, at the end of the day, when we look in the mirror, we're there with ourselves and those private struggles. And really, when we connect to other people, it's these small, personal struggles that we all have in common. We hope audiences will see a show, relate to the character, and by proxy, relate to the actor willing to be vulnerable in such an intimate space. All we have are each other, and if art can take us on a personal journey with another person, that's a beautiful thing.

Hesperia opens July 15th and plays through August 15th, running Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8 PM. All shows play at the Right Brain Project, 4001 N Ravenswood, which is accessible by the Irving Park Brown Line stop, the Irving Park, Damen, and Lincoln buses, and the Ravenswood Metra, as well as boasting ample street parking. Tickets are $15, $12 in a group. Tickets at 773-750-2033 or

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Goodbye, Harvey

This post isn't about Chicago or theatre (though American Splendor was adapted for the stage in a production starring Dan Castellanata in the 1980's), but please read it anyway. You should know about Harvey, and might want to check his work out.

Harvey Pekar, a comic book writer best known for American Splendor, a series based on his own life, was found dead by his wife Joyce shortly before 1 AM Monday morning. Pekar was also a jazz writer of renown, writing reviews, liner notes, and pieces for anthologies. (He also wrote at least one jazz-related comic.) He and his wife lived a few blocks from the house where I grew up in Cleveland Heights, and he was a friend.

We weren't close, and I'd mostly lost touch with him and Joyce, but I hung out in the man's living room (overflowing with books and records, of course) and wanted to share a few memories.

I met Harvey and Joyce through Danielle, their foster daughter. We went to camp together (I was 13 at the time, she was a few years younger), and I ended up spending time with the then-new family. We discussed theatre, politics, music and more. They gave me copies of several issues of the comics--which let me tell you, is heady stuff for a 13 year old to read. That kind of insight into life cuts pretty deep at any age, much less when you're a mixed-up, still-sorta-closeted, unsure of how to live out your intense artistic ambitions early-adolescent. Conversations with them had the rare combination of validating my right to hold and express artistic and political opinions (not often something granted to 13 year olds by non-relatives) with challenging me to actually understand and support them. It was exasperating at times, but it helped open my mind.

And of course there was the undeniable, possibly shallow thrill of being friends with a nationally recognized artist. I got to introduce my Uncle Lou, for whom Harvey's comics and especially his jazz writing were touchstones, to him. And for a small group of in the know people, Harvey Pekar was the coolest Cleveland celebrity one could know (Drew Carey be damned).

And of course there was the movie--the 2003 film version of American Splendor, which combined interviews with Harvey and Joyce, fictional scenes in which they were played by Paul Giamatti (some of his best work ever, his lack of an Oscar nomination was shameful) and Hope Davis, and animated sequences to tell the story of his life and work. It was shot in Cleveland, and used a bunch of local actors. Harvey and Joyce generously put my name in the front of the line to audition to be an extra. I was never able to, due to school scheduling issues, but my mother (my ride to the audition) ended up getting called twice--and now appears for 7 seconds in the background of an Oscar nominee for best screenplay. (And for once the film version of a comic book completely lives up to the source material--it's well-acted, well-adapted, funny, creative, and moving. Rent it.)

And of course he meant a lot to Cleveland, especially Cleveland Heights. Cleveland gets a lot of flak (some of it deserved and some of it from me), but his stories showed the city in a much deeper light than the "mistake on the lake" taunts that get slung at it. There's a lot of beauty in Cleveland, and especially Cleveland Heights. And just about everyone in town seemed to have met him at least once, and they all liked him.

So rest in peace, Harvey. You were a brilliant man, a good soul, and a great artist. It was a pleasure to know you as well as I did, and I wish I'd done a better job at staying in contact. My city was better for having you in it, and I'm fortunate for having read your work. You went way too soon, but I hope that more people will get to know your work now. My infinite sympathies to Joyce, Danielle, and all of your family and friends. Thank you.

If any of you have memories of Harvey personally, or were touched by his work, please put them below.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Before It Hits Home

I've still not been in the bloggiest of moods (it happens), but here are a few things of interest from the past week.

--This past Saturday, July 3rd, was Audra McDonald's 40th birthday. (As she was born in 1970, that means she won four Tonys before her 34th birthday. You may commence hating.) She's a truly stunning performer. Not only does she have a surpassingly beautiful voice, but she acts both songs and scenes with complete commitment and honesty. I have yet to be disappointed by her work--or indeed, be anything other than stunned. So if you have one of her discs, listen to it and wish her a happy belated birthday. If not, order a few, and watch her on youtube until they arrive. Also, hope that Private Practice, her TV show, ends soon, so that she can get back on Broadway and in the recording studio. You'll thank me.

--And this past Sunday was July 4th. A day later, I managed to get to my annual tradition for the day: listening to the original cast album of 1776. What a great play. Tuneful songs, a raft of fantastic performances (I believe that William Daniels' John Adams, which can be heard on the album and seen in the surprisingly good film adaptation, is among the greatest musical theatre performances ever.), and a stunningly crafted book, which somehow leaves the audience in nail-biting suspense as to whether the Declaration of Independence will be signed. It's a show I utterly love, and it may even be in my personal top 10 musicals list. So if you're not familiar with the show, go track it down immediately. If you are, listen to it again.

--The Hypocrites have announced their 2010-2011 season, and it looks facinating (and bizarre).Greg Allen of the Neo-Futurists is directing his own adaptation of Kafka's The Trial, called K. Based on the reputations of both Kafka and Allen, it's sure to be a brain-bender. Sean Graney, the company's artistic director (whose work I've usually loved in the past) will direct his own version of Georg Buchner's Woyzeck, a seminal, legendariy weird, 19th-century play which has been hugely influential and which I have never gotten around to seeing or reading. (It will be running concurrently with other adaptations of the work at About Face and Collaboraction next season.) Both of those, while ambitious works, sit relatively comfortably within The Hypocrites' aesthetic. The shock in the announcement is the third production: Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. Yes, the surpassingly silly and slyly satirical British operetta, filled with patter songs, soaring melodies, and ridiculous plot twists. Graney will direct, and whether or not it works, it's sure to infuriate Gilbert and Sullivan purists and be unlike anything else playing in Chicago. I'll be there.

--And finally, a poll question. The AV Club has a discussion question every Friday, which is answered by the staff members and then discussed in the comments section. This past Friday, the question was:

When have you felt like a work hit close to home for you, or almost like something was made just for you?

The staff members responded with a variety of movies, albums, and books. None of them mentioned a play. (This doesn't particularly surprise me.) So I figured I'd open the question up for you guys. What theatrical work, either seen on stage, read as a script, or listened to as a cast album, really hit home for you?

I'll start.

For me it would have to be the character of Posner in Alan Bennett's The History Boys. Few plays I've ever seen have been so accurate in their portrayal of how being an adolescent really feels, and few characters have ever felt as much like me as Posner. He's gay, Jewish, and short, he's wracked with desire for an unattainable man, and he never feels truly accepted by the people around him. Now people could argue, quite accurately, that there are significant differences between me and him: I'm not as socially awkward, able to make my way through the world reasonably well, and much more fortunate in love. But that doesn't mean that there still aren't moments--or weeks--when I feel just like him. To see a character with whom I identify so strongly onstage is spooky and moving. To learn that his life turns out badly is devastating.

How about you?

Friday, July 2, 2010

New Review Posted: Lookingglass Alice

Another week of extra-blog worries, another week of no posting. (And my connection to a few of the things on which I might post is a little too personal for me to think of a good way to write on them just yet.) And when I had a  review published on Monday, too! Shame on me.

Anyhow, Lookingglass Alice is pretty damn cool. It has issues in terms of storytelling and emotional heft--any version is necessarily episodic, which this doesn't fix, and few of the poignant moments really connect the way they're supposed to. But damn if it doesn't make you ooooh and aaaah over and over again. It's best for kids (and there weren't that many the night I went), but there's more than enough for adults to love. Who says we don't deserve to go oooooh and aaaahhh too?

Anyhow, here's the text:

There is one thing any adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels must be: full of wonders. And while "Lookingglass Alice" has some flaws, it is a stunning success by that standard. There isn't a show in town with a higher wow-to-minute ratio.
The play, adapted by David Catlin, who also directs, follows the structure of "Alice Through the Looking Glass," using material both from that novel and from "Alice in Wonderland." Using a cast of only five, it embodies scenes from the novels with stunning clowning and circus work. Everything from the Caterpillar to the mad tea party to Humpty Dumpty appears, but none just replicate the images to which we're accustomed — the production re-imagines them in a thrillingly theatrical way.

It suffers from the primary flaw that any adaptation of the source material does: the novels are episodic, lacking any compelling dramatic throughline. This is fine on the page, but can leave any live version feeling like a string of brilliant moments that don't entirely connect. Catlin's version makes connections between the story and the process of growing up, but it doesn't solve the problem. And though all of the displays of circus arts are stunning, some go on too long.

But when the show is this entertaining, it's hard to care. The cast is spectacular, with each member having multiple moments to shine while working as a flawless ensemble (all but Alice play a wide variety of parts). Alice never leaves the stage, and Lindsey Noel Whiting makes us love her while making the acrobatics look easy. Among the many great characters created by the other actors are Molly Brennan's imperious Red Queen (do not check your cell phone when she's onstage), Anthony Fleming III's sinuous Cheshire Cat, Thomas J. Cox's daffy White Knight, and Kevin Douglas' crazed Mad Hatter. All five (and the superb designers and stage crew) make the magic happen, and it's a wonder.