Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wonderland at The Russell Industrail Center - 4/3, 4/4, 4/10, 4/11

Wonderland, a Detroit-flavored re-telling of the classic children’s tale of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, told through music and burlesque. Starring Roxy D’Lite as Alice, featuring the original artwork of John Dunivant – and an original score, performed by The Questions and The Electric Lions and other talented musicians forging a new band.

Performances are April 3rd, 4th, and 10th, 11th, inside the Motor City Movie House (on the 5th floor) of the Russell Industrial Center. Doors at 8pm, Shows start at 9pm.


The Show:

The brain shivers and the eyes rotate sideways…you try to break it down with your adult logic and feel as though you were cloaked with some unfounded comfort as a child, that the kaleidoscope phrasings and biting verbiage were innocently capricious – the same way pastels and launch-able pieces draw children to toys or McDonalds. You try to take yourself back, -back down the rabbit hole: it seemed at the time, reading as children, that the winding, graceful clumsiness of this upside-down paradoxical world created by Lewis Carroll in the 1860’s was just a fancy, wondrous playground, a silly symphony to roll on in clownish manners with nonsensical things being said by extremely imaginative characters.

Merely a wonderland...

Yet, the story has come to be culturally conceived (and, quite convincingly at times) to be an elaborate metaphor for hallucinogenic drugs. (Transportation to alternate realities, ingesting drinks or foods that alter your state, teleporting cats, and rampant confusion…) Though nothing is definitive and contemporary readers, literati and more avant-garde cognoscenti can debate whether Carroll “…was taking drugs” when he wrote it, and we can try to dissect the meanings of Ravens and writing desks and Jesus allegories and eating mushrooms…and whether or not it all has any atom of meaning to it… Regardless…

The longwinded point is – it is ripe for interpretation.

And who better to reinterpret the (innocently psychedelic) tale of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, then the already bubbling, macabre and storybook-ish minds of Theatre Bizarre – the same artist collective responsible for, indisputably, the greatest, (most imaginative and rewardingly surprising) Halloween party around…

“We’re all mad here!”

Theatre Bizarre is an outdoor space that serves as a collaborative vortex for numerous artists and creative minds in the Detroit area – particularly invested in artwork and performance art – with special attention to live music.

It was started 10 years ago by artist John Dunivant and carpenter Ken Poirer – combining visual and physical (or, architectural) art – a living space, on W. State Fair Ave. It is run by (and consistently attracts) lovers of freak-ified costume balls, sideshows, vaudeville, and ethereal (often fantastically creepy) imagery. Their art is embodied in the spirit of a masquerade – which carries over, heavily, into the idea of Wonderland.

The idea starts with Casey Miller, more than 8 years ag
o, when he started getting into show organizing. He’d worked in drama before, from high school onward, but had lately gotten into organizing concerts. After overseeing a Save The Vegetables concert for Theatre Bizarre, he became “adopted” by “the family” and became the Theatre’s stage manager. From his youth, he had always wanted to do what he, tellingly, refers to as “…an Alice in Wonderland party.” For this is, my friends, indeed…quite the party.

“I’m fascinated with the story,” said Miller, Wonderland’s director. “I’m a Lewis Carroll dork.” Two years ago, Miller attended a show in Windsor, an Alice-themed dance and burlesque show, that starred Roxi D’Lite. “I’m watching it, thinking, oh my god—we could do so much with this…this is the answer! Turn it into a variety show

Essentially, that’s what [the story] is, [Alice] goes through Wonderland and all these characters that she meets, she sees these crazy performances that they do…”

Not long after, at a People’s Art Festival at the Russell Industrial Center, inspiration started churning once again – and Miller presented the idea to his mates at Theatre Bizarre. He also crossed paths with his old friend, Ed

Gartner, who runs the Motor City Move House (now located on the 5th floor of the Russell). With support from both camps – Miller set to work gathering more hands to help – which included fellow Bizarre collaborator, Jason McCombs, to handle the technical side of production. Dunivant and the rest of the Bizarre crew would also join in – with Dunivant’s new original artwork (inspired by classical illustrations from old editions) being back projected onto a giant story book, with “turning pages” throughout the performances.

Combine a number of burlesque dancers, with world-renowned Roxi D’Lite as your lead, with music provided by local musicians, playing live to the dancers (including The Questions, The Electric Lions) and you’ve got yourself quite a trip…a mind-melting psychedelic, multimedia trip…

The basics: A play led by interpretive dance (mainly b
urlesque), angling towards a masquerade-ball vibe, while also leaving it open to audience members to embrace it as an “Alice in Wonderland theme party” (with dressing up encouraged). All of the classic scenes will be interpreted, the opening, the falling into the rabbit hole, the white rabbit (dancer), the (mind-melting) Mad Hatter, the caterpillar (a two-person costume), the Cheshire Cat, the Duchess, all the key elements – a theatrical adaptation.

“It’s all about recreating subconscious dimensions,” said Drew Bardo (singer/guitarist for The Questions). Bardo was approached by Miller and McCombs and offered the job of music director – a new hat for the poet and singer/songwriter, who’d gotten used to slam poetry stage performance and, over the last 4 years, singing on stages like the Magic Stick and Blind Pig with interpretive rock group, The Questions. Now…he had to essentially write a musical – up to a dozen original pieces, some with lyrics, some instrumental, that could not only fit to a burlesque style of interpretive dance, but also reference the action of the plot.

This being a new venture for Bardo (above), he holed up in his home on a few inspiring candle-lit evenings, and left himself alone with the text of Carroll and his notebook and guitar. After a few rewarding experiments, he approached Rabeah Ltief, singer/guitarist of The Electric Lions, and asked him to be his collaborator for scoring Wonderland.

As Ltief puts it, no matter how you cut it, the story of Alice is a trip…mostly viewed as a psychedelic one…but, that said – it lends itself to experimental-pop and smoky, surfy psychedelic garage rock – a flavor The Electric Lions have already been honing through their three years together. This style melds well with Bardo’s project, the Questions, a more amorphous sort of rock that harkens back to classic 50’s blues writers, draped in a gothic New Orleans-tinged freak-folk.

“[It’s] not showy, showtunes songs…” Ltief (below) says at the mentioning of ‘scoring a musical.’ “These are really cool songs, we would feel comfortable putting a lot of these songs in our normal sets.”

“We want to make sure that it represents our environment here,” said Bardo. “I don’t want to put together something that people expect…We’re not recreating Disney’s version or recreating somebody else’s…we’re bringing a Detroit perspective to the story.”

It reveals a secondary triumph for Wonderland (and Theatre Bizarre as a whole) – to expand the sometimes-tunnel-vision tendencies of Detroit’s cultural cool-crowds beyond just music…into the realm of performance art. Miller echoes this sentiment, because everything in the production, art, music, dance, is original – “…the whole thing is very Detroit, it looks Detroit, it sounds Detroit, it's all Detroit artists,…except for Roxy, who's from Windsor.”

Indeed, Roxy D’Lite will be performing numerous dances throughout the show, as Alice, along with Pend Suspension, Nichole of Sultry Surfers of the Apocalypse, Warrior Girl, Hardcore Detroit, Satori Circus, Flec, Shetan Noir And Miss Juliana…along with Drew Bardo on guitar, with singer Kate Nickerson and the Electric Lions, including Pookie, Spazzy, Hussain - guitarist Mike Latcha and saxophonist Benny Johnson

With all the artists involved, from the musicians to the dancers, to the tech crew, to the production crew – Bardo said, this project has forced them all to step it up. For the two bands involved, who were both at the time involved in writing/recording their next albums, their current work was paused so that they could begin work on the Wonderland soundtrack – which will eventually be released on vinyl. The collaborating musicians have formed a new band – tentatively...called Medicine Tree (myspace). The band also features: Kate Nickerson (singer,), Pookie, Spazzy, (on rhythm, drums and bass) Mike (on guitar), Hussain (on keys) and _ (on sax).

“What we really hope to accomplish here is to make a really interesting story come to life,” said Bardo, “in our own Midwestern, weirdo, beatnik way, ya know? Just to bring Alice in Wonderland to Detroit.”

Bellydancing, break-dancing, burlesque, live rock n roll…and an errant mystifying wonder.

“I don’t want to call it a play or a musical,” said Miller. “It’s a trip. A visual, musical, sensational trip…” He adds… “just that…people’s eyeballs are gonna be melting out of their faces…and they’re gonna be slipping around on their eyeball juice. It’s that brain-bending, ya know?”

We’d have it no other way…


"We’re all mad here!" - Cheshire Cat

"Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves." - The Duchess

More info:


Executive Producer/Director: Casey Miller

Producer/Technical/Video Director: Jason McCombs

Music Director: Drew Bardo and Rabeah Lteif

Costumes: Hayley Jane Nickerson

Art Director: Jon Dunivant

Alice: Roxi Dlite

Voice of Alice: Hayley Jane

The Duchease: Satori Circus

Chesire Cat: Flec

Queen of Hearts: Shetan Noir

Medicine Tree: Drew Bardo, Rabeah Lteif, Kate Nickerson, Pookie, Spazzy, Mike, Hussain, Benny Johnson

(Kate and Mike)

(Spazzy, Pookie, Hussain)

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