Playing 'Alice': Suburban actresses master circus arts to play title role in Lookingglass Theatre classic

  • Molly Hernández of Glen Ellyn plays the titular role in Lookingglass Theatre's revival of its enchanting signature work, "Lookingglass Alice." Hernández shares the role with Lindsey Noel Whiting.

    Molly Hernández of Glen Ellyn plays the titular role in Lookingglass Theatre's revival of its enchanting signature work, "Lookingglass Alice." Hernández shares the role with Lindsey Noel Whiting. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

 
 
Updated 6/16/2022 12:02 PM

When Glen Ellyn native Molly Hernández was in college, she told her mom she was running off to join the circus.

For the actress who turned professional at 9 and co-starred in Court Theatre's "Wait Until Dark" at 12, running off to join the circus meant attending the conservatory at The Actors Gymnasium, a premiere circus arts and performance training center in Evanston.

 

Introduced to the training center when she performed in the Illinois High School Theatre Festival production of "Pippin," Hernández took classes there as a Loyola University undergraduate. She grew stronger. The joint disorder she had since childhood improved. And she attracted the attention of artistic director and second generation circus artist Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, who suggested Hernández apply for the conservatory program.

Molly Hernández, seen here, and Lindsey Noel Whiting share the titular role of Alice in Lookingglass Theatre's revival of its production "Lookingglass Alice."
Molly Hernández, seen here, and Lindsey Noel Whiting share the titular role of Alice in Lookingglass Theatre's revival of its production "Lookingglass Alice." - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Not long after, Hernández saw the 2018 casting announcement for Lookingglass Theatre's remount (the first in seven years) of its signature work "Lookingglass Alice." Hernández made another pronouncement.

"Mom, I'm going to be Alice," she said.

And now she is. Hernández shares the role in Lookingglass' current, COVID-19 delayed revival, with ensemble member Lindsey Noel Whiting. It marks Whiting's 10th production playing Alice, the heroine of Lewis Carroll's beloved "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass," which inspired this enchanting theatrical work.

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An Actors Gymnasium associate artist, Whiting, a South Elgin native who has long appreciated visual spectacle, was performing with the now defunct Redmoon Theatre when Hernandez-DiStasi recommended her for the 2007 remount of "Lookingglass Alice."

Hired as an understudy, Whiting realized she was in way over her head.

"What have I done?" she thought.

For the 10th time, Lookingglass Theatre artistic associate Lindsey Noel Whiting of South Elgin takes on the role of Alice in the remount of the company's "Lookingglass Alice." Whiting shares the role with Molly Hernández.
For the 10th time, Lookingglass Theatre artistic associate Lindsey Noel Whiting of South Elgin takes on the role of Alice in the remount of the company's "Lookingglass Alice." Whiting shares the role with Molly Hernández. - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

After 15 years the physically demanding role remains a challenge, but it's one Whiting navigates well as both actor and circus performer.

"As an actor, you're cheating," she says. "You're not pretending to do the trick, you're really doing the trick."

One time, while Hernández performed one of the tricks, Whiting became emotional watching her work so hard.

"It's not pretend work. It's hard work," she said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The stunts, particularly the aerial stunts, make it dangerous. Dangerous, but not unsafe, says Hernández, who recalls Whiting reminding her when they began training in February to stop and look, make sure her foot is placed properly and that she has a proper hold before doing a trick.

"It's so serious," she said. "This is the hand that's keeping me alive. This is the hand that's keeping me in the air."

Mistakes happen, said Hernández, who recalls once getting stuck like Spider-Man in the cloud swing. But her circus training kicked in and she extricated herself.

Whiting says the actors have options, alternative tricks known as "circus B" for when a piece of equipment malfunctions or an actor is performing with an injury.

The show takes a toll. Whiting, who's in her 40s with a young child, has endured bruises and injuries. So has Hernández, 25. But preparing for and playing this role made her stronger than ever.

"I couldn't hold a binder in choir (because of her condition); it was too heavy," she said. "Now I'm holding grown men on my shoulders."

Initially, Hernández doubted her ability to play the role. That Hernandez-DiStasi believed in her inspired her to believe in herself.

Lookingglass Theatre artistic associate Lindsey Noel Whiting plays Alice in the remount of "Lookingglass Alice." Whiting shares the role with Molly Hernández.
Lookingglass Theatre artistic associate Lindsey Noel Whiting plays Alice in the remount of "Lookingglass Alice." Whiting shares the role with Molly Hernández. - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

"Lindsey's been doing this for 14 years. There's stuff that lives in her body that's not in mine yet," she said.

Understanding that it's overwhelming to contemplate all the role demands, Whiting told her: All you do to start the show is grab the cat and sit in the chair. If that goes well, do the next thing.

"Grab the cat and sit in the chair. That helped quell so much anxiety," Hernández said.

The show has evolved over the years, Whiting says, mostly as a result of the cast. Michel Rodriguez Cintra, who plays The White Rabbit, is an expert tumbler who also performs on the Chinese pole, she said. Hernández speaks Spanish, so she peppers her dialogue with Spanish.

"Seeing brown kids who are excited to see me, who hear a word of Spanish and smack their moms is such a special feeling," Hernández said.

Returning after seven years, in the wake of a pandemic, this show remains as resonant as ever.

"It's a story about growing up. It's something we can all connect with," said Whiting, whose husband Samuel Taylor plays The White Knight. "We've all been kids. We've all had people telling us the rules and trying to follow those rules."

Hernández agrees "Lookingglass Alice" is a special tale.

"It's the story of a young person going through life trying to figure out what works and what doesn't," she said, "wrestling with imagination, getting frustrated with herself, getting frustrated with the world and trying to overcome that."

• • •

"Lookingglass Alice"

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday; 1:30 and 7 p.m. Thursday; 7:30 p.m. Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, through July 31. Also, 2 p.m. June 21, July 5 and 19

Where: Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, (312) 337-0665, lookingglass theatre.org

Tickets: $60, $70

COVID-19 precautions: Proof of vaccination and masking required

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