Alice’s Adventures Under Ground at City Lit Theater | Theater review

Christopher Hampton’s fascinating 1994 take on Lewis Carroll’s work gets a terrific Chicago premiere.

Photograph: Paul GrigonisNick Lake and Emily Garman in Alice's Adventures Under Ground at City Lit Theater

Lewis Carroll’s brilliant and ambiguous legacy drives Hampton’s play, here in its Chicago premiere. This 1994 work sustains 80 minutes of antic charm with condensed scenes from the two Alice in Wonderland books, music beautifully sung by the ensemble and choreography that channels the books’ thrilling anarchy. The young Emily Garman, in her stage debut, stands Tenniel-straight and sasses the absurd adults in her midst with brio; her Alice is satisfyingly petulant by play’s end.

Hampton, the British playwright perhaps best known for Les Liaisons Dangereuses and the English translations of Yasmina Reza’s plays, distinguishes his Alice with the very adult addition of Carroll, a.k.a. Charles Dodgson: As the mathematician spins tales for his child visitor in 1860, scenes from the book take over the room. Dodgson’s either odd or not-odd preference for the company of children is further addressed via passages from the writer’s correspondence and a brief but ethically confounding scene with no high jinks at all: the big-hearted clown Dodgson turned a defensive, tightly prim supplicant to the parents of children he wants to photograph in the buff.

Dodgson has a noble representative in the molasses-voiced Nick Lake, whose role as master of ceremonies of this drawing-room farce is enhanced by ingenious magic from set designer Ray Blackburn. Broad-comedy broads and baggy-pants comedians Morgan McCabe, Edward Kuffert and Lee Wichman—as the Duchess, Mad Hatter, March Hare and numerous others—delight with slapstick and droll pun delivery, despite only occasional accent slips and overly knowing winks.

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