The tales of Alice and her fantastical companions in Wonderland are generally understood as nonsensical bits of whimsy. Even their genesis seems lighter than air -- the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson making up stories over his shoulder as he paddled a boat with three young friends aboard. But their popularity and endurance stems from the relevance they hold for people of all ages, people who may describe an emotionally difficult experience as "going down the rabbit hole," or refer to Alice's race with the Red Queen when they talk about feeling like they're going nowhere fast. And Dodgson, who wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, laced Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass with all sorts of jokes that would make more sense to adults than to children. More than a century later, Alice's exploits are still reflected in popular culture -- a notable recent example being The Matrix, where Neo is instructed to follow the white rabbit.
Now Bay Area native Mesha Kussman, inspired by Alice's adventures and the Wonderland that is the Internet age, has come back to her hometown to present a thoroughly modern Wonderland in her dance theater work brass logic, which is being performed this weekend only at Transparent Theater. Kussman, who plays all the characters -- Alice, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, the Dormouse, and the Newscaster -- sees parallels between Dodgson's Wonderland and the hectic landscapes of New York, where she's lived for nearly five years while studying dance and theater at NYU. "I'm on the subway, I'm out of the subway, there's a million people, there's a million signs, everybody's advertising something to me," she says. "There's a million sounds; most of them are sounds that don't come from human beings. The songs that I hear, and the dances that I see, are dances that are between people and moving vehicles. People and stoplights. The songs are between people having conversations with virtual representatives of Sprint or AT&T."
Kussman's Alice doesn't exactly go down anything so 19th-century as a rabbit hole. "Instead of falling down into a Wonderland of imagination and creativity that is affected by her understanding of manners, it's more modern-day because she's grappling with a landscape that's very much like a video game," she says. "She's bombarded with images from television, she falls into a game show, she falls into a television and is playing the characters. Her concepts of reality are being challenged. She is trying to grab onto something that is real, and she feels like she doesn't understand where she is, what is right or what is wrong. How can there be a right and a wrong when it's so easy to turn things on and off?"Kussman, director Mahayana Landowne, sound designer Matthew Gill, and lighting designer Andrea Kung have created a landscape that Kussman calls "an ultimate virtual reality" and describes as looking like a video game. Alice is in a cell phone, she's in a television show, she's on a game show: She gets snapped back and forth faster than you can hit the remote. "It's an adventure for the audience to watch her as she travels," Kussman says. Although eventually she hopes to integrate video projections into the show, she's pleased with the current look and feel. "There's no set -- the landscapes are created entirely with lights and sound but the lighting is incredibly complicated. I'm miked, and the sound designer is deejaying my voice live on stage," she adds. "So he's altering my voice, adding reverberation, giving the audience clues. Musically it's really exciting because of that, and because there's a lot of references to television that we might have already heard. There's sounds of computers loading up, sounds of computers crashing, and music that's made out of sounds we hear everyday. Just taking the sound that your computer makes when it opens and looping it turns that into a song, and after a while I hardly hear my computer at all, it's just a really dope beat."
Transparent is a good fit for Kussman's show for many reasons. Not only is it physically the kind of open space she needs, the theater's mission is consistent with her own. "They're really interested in promoting conversation, putting something on stage and then not letting it stay on the stage but seeing how it affects people at home and how it goes out into the street."
Bright, fast, and shiny as it may be, brass logic asks hard questions about the technological whirlwind in which we find ourselves. "I think it's important for people to come back to the humanness within the chaos," Kussman says.
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