Although many people first encounter Alice in Wonderland in childhood, Lewis Carroll’s whimsical stories and colorful characters are rich enough—and bizarre enough—to capture the fascination of grown-ups, too. At first, a burlesque adaptation of Alice might seem at odds with the conservative sexual mores of its Victorian England roots. But then, one considers that a.) Carroll himself may or may not have abided by these codes, and b.) sexual repression usually yields a boisterous backlash. Suddenly, a Caterpillar striptease and a Queen of Hearts who plays strip poker instead of croquet just makes so much sense.
Through the Looking Glass: The Burlesque Alice in Wonderland, produced by noted Seattle burlesque artists Lily Verlaine and Jasper McCann, opened May 15 and is a playful, sexy interpretation of Alice. Back for a fifth season, Through the Looking Glass re-imagines Carroll’s cast of characters as performers and patrons of The Looking Glass, “Wonderland’s Hottest Nightclub.” It only loosely follows the narratives set out by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, but the show is full of quips and visual gags sourced directly from the Alice texts. The entertainment that follows is full of dance, music, striptease, and comedy: all the hallmarks of classic burlesque. The Triple Door is the perfect venue for this show, too, full of old-world charm that bolsters the 1940s nightclub atmosphere.
The show began with two Alices, one blonde and one brunette (Inga Ingénue and Lou Henry Hoover), meeting on either side of a mirror. Once looking-glass Alice enticed the other through the mirror, the curtain opened on the Looking Glass nightclub. The White Rabbit (McCann) acted as Host while two wise-cracking waitresses named Drink Me (Polly Wood) and Eat Me (Captain Morgan Le Fay) provided comic relief between dance acts. The music was largely 1940s big band, with some accents from earlier decades thrown in. The Alices watched, wide-eyed and full of silent comedy, occasionally interacting with characters and eventually getting their own ecdysiastic duets.
Inga Ingénue as Alice
Photo by Scott Butner
The dance acts in the first half of the show mostly followed the same formula of striptease, but it never diminished their entertainment factor. These artists know how to undress with a dancer’s skill, and they do so with gusto in Jamie Von Stratton’s spectacular costumes. A resplendent Verlaine took the stage as the Caterpillar, backed up by extra legs provided by the engaging trio known as TriBellas. Tiger Lily (Miss Indigo Blue) danced while wearing a towering flowered headdress that rivaled any Carmen Miranda fruit hat.
Even as acts got dancier, they were also pure comedy. As the Knave of Hearts (who stole some tarts, and you can imagine the jokes that followed “tarts”), Paris Original combined balletic pas de chats and brisées with pelvic thrusts. He lost his pants, revealing a number of strategically placed hearts, as well as two oven mitts perfectly framing his crotch. The TriBellas returned as Pink Flamingoes in burlesque’s fluffy pink answer to the Four Little Swans. Finally, the Red Queen (Verlaine) and the White Queen (Kitten La Rue) engaged in an over-the-top dance-off. There is something gratifying about seeing attractive women willing to make ridiculous faces on stage, especially when they are also taking off their clothes and revealing so much of their bodies: it reminds the audience that sexual bodies (regardless of sex or gender) are not objects of perfection, nor are they meant to be taken over-seriously. Instead, these bodies have human faces, and are capable of good-natured, bawdy humor.
The second half of the show was not quite as engaging as the first, possibly because it lacked a strong story arc. The club show format felt repetitive, even as jokes were consistently funny and dances consistently artful. However, the second half provided more variation in the kinds of dances performed. Famed boylesque performer Waxie Moon executed an unforgettable reverse striptease as the Cheshire Cat. Beginning in nothing but a glittery thong and a matching glittering grin, he clothed himself in a furry, leopard-print coat (what else?) after a slinky dance on all-fours. The Tweedle Sisters (Babette La Fave and Holly Pop) stayed dressed, but their energetic jazz routine could have come straight out of a 1930s musical revue. Verlaine’s Caterpillar transformed into a butterfly together with a Cavalier (Trojan Original) in the evening’s most overtly sexual dance. No shimmying or tassel-twirling here: instead, the two danced a sensuous pas de deux full of limbs and intimate partnering. Their choreography included a long moment of dance inside a sheer cocoon, which showed a new way of employing the conceal/reveal dichotomy that is ever-present in burlesque.
The full cast of Through the Looking Glass
Photo by Scott Butner
As a whole, Through The Looking Glass is a humorous, glamorous show. Verlaine and McCann present classy burlesque, heavy on the dance, and it’s a treat to see classically-trained dancers who would be at home on a concert stage using their technique to raise the dance standards in popular entertainment. Though not purely a dance show, it takes dance seriously, and blends smart choreography with comedy, sexuality, and spectacle. The resulting production appeals to a range of people and could even broaden the audience for dance in Seattle.
Through the Looking Glass: The Burlesque Alice in Wonderland runs two shows per night through Saturday, May 18. Tickets and show information can be found here.