Behind the Bizarre
“We’re all mad here. I’m mad, you’re mad…,” said The Cat.
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said The Cat.
“Or you wouldn’t have come here.”
Madness? This is Detroit.
In April the group of performers loosely collectively known as “Theatre Bizarre” (known for their yearly Halloween fete which is probably best likened to a demented 1930s-era Coney Island) put on a show called “Wonderland,” and Disney it ain’t. An adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, creators Casey Miller and Jason McCombs are insistent that this production has nothing to do with the tamer Disney tale, and truth be told, this is really the kind of production that could only happen in Detroit.
Imagine: a popular burlesque performer as Alice. A dominatrix doing a striptease as the White Rabbit. Bellydancers as the Queen of Hearts and one half of the Caterpillar (the other half being a suspended trapeze act). And you probably can’t even imagine what that mad Tea Party looked like.
Yes, this is Detroit, the city in which two guys can have an idea for a wildly over-the-top, elaborate, multi-act stage performance and in five months be showing it in one of the countless tucked-away nooks of the 2.2 million square feet of artist salvage space known as the Russell Industrial Center. If they tried to pull this off in New York, there would have been a host of preening celebrities in the audience, the stage actors would have all had an over-inflated sense of self importance and would have been tripping over each other for a chance to speak with media members, tickets would have ranged into the hundreds of dollars and would have been impossible to get (earning bragging rights for those who would snag them), and it would have probably happened in some ultra-stark minimalist hyper-trendy gallery where people with feigned foreign accents would have commented on the brilliance and vision of the directors while sipping champagne and exchanging business cards. And that suspension act would never have flown. (Literally.)
You get where I’m going with this: something like this could happen only in Detroit, where the arts have yet to be tainted by money. There is no great financial gain here: for a show like this, these guys were probably lucky just to cover costs. These artists don’t do it for the money or the fame (and in fact sneer at some of the mainstream media coverage); they do it because they’re true artists. And it is this unwavering DIY mentality that keeps Detroit’s artists’ community thriving, as well as keeping it a community rather than a competition.
Here in Detroit, if you want something done you’ve got to do it yourself. This DIY code extends to all facets of Detroit living, but never is it more apparent than when you see a production like “Wonderland.” Miller and McCombs had an idea sometimes last November to put on an adaptation of the Lewis Carroll story. They decided which characters from the story they wanted to use, then thought of different area performers who might be appropriate for the roles. Some choices were obvious from the start (Satori Circus as the Duchess was one), others they were unsure about but ultimately worked even better than they could have imagined. They approached Drew Bardo of local music act the Questions, who then composed all original music for the show ranging from straightforward rock to hypnotic gypsy dance to hip-hop to Hindustani. Many of these performers are part of the larger group that put on “Theatre Bizarre,” though credit for the creation of the show belongs entirely to Miller and McCombs.
All illustrations, set pieces, stage, lighting, even curtains were all created by this group. The mastermind behind Theatre Bizarre John Dunivant illustrated the various set pieces used, including the many different images projected on the centerpiece “book.” (The curtains were actually Jerry Belanger’s, owner of Detroit’s Park Bar, but hey—sometimes DIY has to include a little bit of borrowing.) Costumes were designed by Hayley Jane Nickerson, who also sang and performed as the voice of Alice.
The resulting show called “Wonderland” is a visual feast: a throwback to the old vaudeville performances and a celebration of Detroit’s very strong underground vaudeville scene. It is a rock-n-roll show, gritty yet sexy, lacking the polish or refinement of Broadway and entirely Rust Belt in its presentation. Imaginative, erotic, and shocking—this is an adaptation of Alice to make Lewis Carroll proud…assuming that there’s truth to the whole mushroom/drug thing and that Carroll would be into burlesque. In either case, it’s best to leave the kiddies at home.
The show opens with a solo performance from Russell Taylor, née Satori Circus. The first piece shows him with a 10-yard-long penis being pulled out of his pants by Hayley Jane. The next features him in a diaper. You should know by now that this is not going to be your average stage show.
When Alice appears, played by Windsor’s own popular burlesque performer Roxi D’Lite, she’s daydreaming while doing the splits. The White Rabbit—played appropriately by dominatrix Jessica Rabbit—goes running by and leads Alice to the rabbit hole, and her descent is done as an aerial performance in a suspended hoop with illustrated walls whizzing by on the screen behind her.
Alice’s giant tears shed at her sudden enormity compliments of the “Eat Me” cake (for sale by the bar) then become a sea for her to swim once she shrinks in size again, which lent itself nicely to an elaborate dance culminating in Alice bursting topless out of a balloon, representing a water bubble.
When Alice stumbles across the giant Caterpillar, Miss Juliana (bottom half) performed a belly dance before breaking away so Warrior Girl (top half) could do an aerial trapeze act.
In the next part of Alice’s adventures, Alice finds the Duchess (Satori Circus) who callously throws her baby around, and meets the marvelous Cheshire Cat (Flec Sybil Mindscape; aka Douglas Michael Schell), whose permanent ear-to-ear grin and wide-open eyes made this character a fast favorite.
No adaptation of Alice would be complete without the Mad Hatter and the March Hare and their everlasting tea party. These characters were played by Pend Suspension, staples of the Dirty Show and the most experienced suspension team in West Michigan. If you’ve never seen a suspension act before, look closely at the pictures. Not for the squeamish, but definitely great for shock value and strangely appropriate for these two characters.
The Dormouse (literally, “sleeping mouse”) crawls out from under the tea table to sing us a song before retiring once again. This adorable little creature with the angelic voice was played by Nichole of Sultry Surfers of the Apocalypse.
At this point Alice finally finds her way to the garden of the Queen of Hearts, where the guards are busy trying to paint the roses red…and break down to some mad beats. Hardcore Detroit breakdance performers are the infamous pack of cards.
The scowling Queen of Hearts and her hopelessly helpless King (bellydancer Shetan Noir and Ringmaster Zeb) take the stage and involve Alice in a ludicrous court proceeding, but first we see the finale of the White Rabbit’s epic striptease (as songstress Hayley Jane pointed out, epic in the true sense of the word), who would scamper across the stage between acts removing only one piece of clothing at a time, resulting in a striptease lasting roughly 90 minutes.
During court, Alice performs one final strip tease of her own (I need to try that next time I fight a speeding ticket), and then wakes up from this wonderfully bizarre dream.
All stage actors pantomime to the words (culled directly from Carroll’s work) spoken offstage by the vocal performers, and there was also a full band playing all of the original music headed up by Bardo and jokingly referred to by Miller as the “10-6” band (a reference to the Mad Hatter’s hat).
“Wonderland” is very much a product of its time and place. A Rust Belt rock and roll vaudeville theatre extravaganza, this could easily become Detroit’s own Rocky Horror Picture Show, complete with people shouting “WHO ARE YOU?” and coming dressed in costume. Even right down to the space in which it was performed—the Motor City Movie House inside the RIC—it is a product of its place. The Russell Industrial Center exists now only as a salvaged art space, and continues to exist only because artists have taken over the space for studios, galleries, and performances (much like what has been done with other spaces such as the CAID and the Bohemian National Home). What would otherwise be a true Midwestern industrial wasteland is now instead a vibrant, thriving creative community, making art out of the decay. Detroit-style DIY. This is a theatre performance wholly unique to Detroit—to Detroit’s artists, to Detroit’s audience, to Detroit’s spaces. And something like this gives me a certain amount of pride knowing that there is nothing happening quite like this anywhere else in the world.
Watching “Wonderland,” I got the feeling that I was experiencing a unique moment in time; something that is fleeting; something impermanent. This was one of those moments I wish I could freeze and return to at will, but in all likelihood, it was a moment that will linger in my memories forever, never to be repeated again. I can only hope that Miller and McCombs will decide to do it all over again next year; I’ll be the first to arrive in costume.
Oh, but one last thing: I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the toy train, powered by a not-toy tractor, which offered transportation from the freight elevator to the performance space in the form of a topsy-turvy/swervy train ride powered by a mad man. But then again: we’re all mad here, aren’t we?
All photos by Sean McClelland.