at various locations in Andersonville

In the 139 years since Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published, Lewis Carroll’s childlike fantasy has become a playground for overzealous academics chasing after traces of subatomic theory, group theory, Aristotelian existentialism, stereo isomers, and enantiomorphs. A host of other thinkers have spent countless hours peeking up Alice’s skirt with Freudian glee, and in recent years a fixation on Carroll’s alleged pedophilia has all but transformed a child’s reverie into kiddie porn.

Even after decades of relentless pawing, however, this exuberant, illogical tale retains its primal innocence. The author may have been a shy, stammering professor of mathematics (many students thought him the most boring teacher they’d ever had), but when he took boat rides on the Thames with the three Liddell girls clamoring for nonsensical stories, he could tap into a vein of unfiltered whimsy yet also remain open to the girls’ suggestions. It’s no surprise the book he wrote from these impromptu tales, originally a Christmas present for little Alice Liddell, careens giddily along until it simply stops when the fictional Alice wakes up.

Turning the novel into multidisciplinary performance, the Neo-Futurists and a bevy of invited visual and performing artists steer clear of the academic minefield and instead follow Carroll’s lead into surreal, aimless illogic. Curator Noelle Krimm, who conceived the project, gave each artist or company a chapter or two, and they installed their work in various Andersonville locations, to be visited in order: an art gallery, a restaurant, a bar, the backyard of a clothing store, a parking lot. Audiences follow various “white rabbits” (actors wearing bunny ears) from the Neo-Futurarium onto the streets and through each chapter; within an hour, four tours depart at 15-minute intervals.

Just as Alice’s adventure in the book begins before the reader has gotten his bearings–by the third sentence, a rabbit in a waistcoat is hurrying past her–the first chapter of Alice consists of John Randle’s installation in the room where audiences wait for their tour rabbits to show up. White children’s dresses entwined with ivy hang from the light fixtures, and on the walls are about two dozen Magritte-like paintings depicting seminal moments from the book. This dreamy, vaguely menacing environment–Randle has also stuck plastic insects everywhere–succinctly captures the tone of Carroll’s tale. But in stark contrast to most illustrations of the novel, Alice never appears. Randle depicts only her hands and eyes, her eyes tellingly painted on small mirrors: this headstrong, prim, smart-alecky seven-year-old is a reflection of us.

To drive that point home, each audience member is given an “Alice” name tag, and the tour guides address entire groups by that name. In fact none of the artists depicts the show’s title character–Carroll’s least interesting creation–except Ann Boyd at Las Manos Gallery for chapter four: she stuffs two women in short white dresses into cubbyholes to show that Alice has grown big enough to fill a house. Instead we take Alice’s place, journeying through a hallucinogenic world of unstable meanings, erratic characters, and unreasonable demands–it seems we’re always being told to line up or sit down. And turning a little girl into a group of strangers instantly distinguishes Alice from literal reenactment, signaling that even our most basic assumptions about character and story should be jettisoned.

Of course Alice never knew what would happen next, so whenever Alice adheres too closely to this familiar text, our journey becomes unfittingly predictable. The House Theater’s performance of chapter two, “The Pool of Tears,” and the Neo-Futurists’ concluding performance of “Alice’s Evidence” are the most literal, giving the event a limp beginning and end. Much more evocative are the chapters that respond to the text rather than embody it. For “Pig and Pepper,” Logan Kibens and Renato Velarde cram three television monitors into the back of a van in a parking lot. The middle screen shows a distorted green face–probably the Cheshire Cat since there’s an enormous orange tail spilling out of the van’s passenger window–obsessing over one sentence from the book. In Kapoot Clown Theater’s “A Mad Tea-Party,” three black-and-white-striped gibberish-speaking creatures play all sorts of transforming games with a martini shaker and a silver tray cover. Like Alice, we gaze upon these bizarre events and wonder what on earth to make of them.

While these chapters retain some of Carroll’s iconography, Brian Torrey Scott’s “Advice From a Caterpillar” seems to bear no relation to it. At a table in Simon’s Tavern, one man tells a convoluted story while berating another who’s attempting to transcribe it in cryptic diagrams. A third man has had his throat freshly slit (a bloody knife rests on the table) and appears to be dead until, for no apparent reason, he revives. Despite its tenuous connection to Carroll’s text, this performance’s motifs–impenetrable language, short tempers, the suspension of cause and effect, and a constant threat of decapitation–crystallize many of the book’s preoccupations. On the afternoon I attended, a bit of unintended surrealism added to the piece’s effect: a career alcoholic sitting a few feet away at the bar paid the actors no mind, as though they were his d.t.’s acting up in the corner.

Alice is that rare environmental performance that takes its subject seriously yet embraces a self-deprecating sense of humor: my tour guide, Donovan Sherman, decoded in ridiculously overwrought terms some of the chapters’ more obvious symbolism. Never letting us forget that this elaborate venture is all a bit silly, the Neo-Futurists and their guests open our imaginations to the profundity of nonsense.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Johnny Knight.