By Christopher Hampton
Directed by Terry McCabe
At City Lit Theatre, Chicago
Never let reality get in the way of a good idea.
City Lit’s Chicago premiere of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, by British playwright Christopher Hampton (most famous for Les Liaisons dangereuses but also the translator for Yasmina Reza’s Art and God of Carnage, recently at the Goodman), is a fast-paced trip through Lewis Caroll’s famous books. However, it is not a straightforward retelling of the tales: rather, the play takes place through Carroll’s perspective, how he told the stories through his eyes, and includes interludes of his personal letters and notes. This lends an interesting twist to otherwise very familiar territory.
And the five actors do remarkably well whizzing through various characters (Alice, of course, along with the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen, the Cheshire Cat . . . and so forth), making each one distinct – although the centerpieces are obviously Alice and Carroll himself. Indeed, they whizz through so many characters that it is sometimes hard to keep track of exactly where they are in the story. Familiarity with the original is certainly helpful here. But not, I should add, essential. Indeed, the actors do a good job drawing distinctions, so it quickly becomes clear who, what, and where. Nick Lake was especially strong as Carroll, who couldn’t help but bring a smile to your face. Indeed, the other three adults – Edward Kuffert, Morgan McCabe and Lee Wichman – all filled out the ensemble well; and Emily Garman as Alice did a steadfast job, and will only get more relaxed and better as the show goes on.
The set is simple yet deft, seeming to be a totally average English drawing room but with very clever hidden doors and small design elements that make it pretty outstanding. The costumes were also very nice – although they did not change much, despite the changing of the characters. This takes one aback first, but so long as one is paying attention, one comes not to mind so much. The costumes did confuse things a bit, though, from time to time.
But what confounded the confusion was the pacing: everything went by very quickly. It felt like the text had very little breathing room. This may have simply been opening night jitters: the 90 minute running time was closer to 80 when all was said and done, so perhaps that extra ten minutes will give the story the time it needs to stretch its legs a bit.
This show reminded me – and I mean no disrespect by this – of a college production. It felt very young, very determined; it’s a script that’s largely unknown, but has great potential, and some interesting themes; and the choices made by the actors and director are sure, even when they aren’t strong – and there is something to be said for that. It’s a fantastic show to check out if you’re a student; it’s a great show to bring children to; and it would be a pleasure for those who know and love Carroll’s work. The letters and notes of the interludes give new insights into the author, and actually lend the play some of its strongest material. It is certainly a whimsical night out.
Reviewed on 9.7.2011
For full show information, visit TheatreInChicago.
At City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawn Ave., Chicago; for tickets call 773-293-3682 or go to www.citylit.org; tickets $18-$25; show times Friday & Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm, through Oct. 9.