KineticArchitecture Dance Theatre
New York, New York
December 3, 2016
Wonder/Through the Looking Glass Houses
In recent years, Arrie Davidson‘s KineticArchitcture Dance Theatre has made a name for itself as a relatively indescribable combination of dance, burlesque, and satire, and for performance pieces that are outrageous, boundary-bending, risqué, somewhat incomprehensible, and undeniably entertaining. Wonder/Through the Looking Glass Houses, the latest example of Arrie and her cohort’s output, fulfills all those qualifications and more. It’s a mess – but a benevolent one, and once you get used to what’s happening and how things are put together, it’s a lot of fun. And there are bonuses: Davidson, Dixon Place’s 2016 Artist in Residence, has created several interesting and, at times, exceptional dances; there’s a sit-down monologue that takes Davidson, and the production, to a human level; and the vocal that’s supposed to be a knockout is a knockout.
The most difficult part of Wonder/Through the Looking Glass Houses (“Wonder”), the company’s first evening-length piece and one of the productions during Dixon Place’s Thirtieth Anniversary year, is accepting what it is, and not lamenting what it is not. The original stories by Lewis Carroll are so familiar from film (and ballet), and snippets of the book so ubiquitous, that anything that doesn’t clearly and accurately relate the story seems wrong. Wonder, however, is an Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass production with a difference, which I suppose is appropriate, since being different – except maybe not – is the point. It doesn’t so much relate the story (though it does to an extent) as it uses it to deliver a not very camouflaged message. Ok, a transparent message. And it does so in such a way that you begin to think that Carroll’s stories were written with the intention to deliver that different message. Maybe the stories were born that way.
If you didn’t already know or haven’t already deduced, Davidson, who also goes by the name Arrie Fae Bronson-Davidson and uses the nom de teatre Faux Pas le Fae (figuring out what to call her is complicated), is described in publicity releases as a transgender performance artist, choreographer, writer and Feminist Faerie advocate for social evolution. All those qualities are evident in Wonder.
Like the Carroll tales, the story in Wonder is told in two “Books,” each of which is comprised of a series of somewhat disconnected scene/chapters that loosely follow the original stories’ trajectory. [Even outside the story, things aren’t what they seem. Lewis Carroll is a nom de plume – his given name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.]
The beginning is the most difficult part of the piece to follow. There’s this White Rabbit (Davidson), who, members of the cast announce sotto voce from the wings (or via a recording), is late getting onto the stage. Once she arrives, Davidson races around the stage like a rabbit with its head cut off – interrupted by moments of speaking to, or sitting with, the audience. Alice (Cecily McCullough) sees him, falls through the rabbit hole after him and meets some strange beings, creatures “different” from those she’s used to seeing . Get it? [If not, later there’s this Caterpillar (Chloe Markewich, in one of several roles she plays) whom Alice encounters in a scene titled “Butterfly Born in the Wrong Body.”] This part of the Alice in Wonderland story is frenetic, difficult to follow, and lacks focus to me – but then, that’s the story, isn’t it?
From that point on, however, the production proceeds as a series of scenes that more or less stand on their own, somewhat related to the original story, but more significant for what happens within the scenes. Some of it’s a little more weird than others. For example, “The Price is Right to be Queen” – in which the Red Queen (Markewich), White Rabbit, Alice, and a “Special Guest” vie to be the “queen” on a “price is right”-type show/scene, with Cheshire Puss (the Cheshire Cat), played by Dara Swisher, as emcee. It’s silly, but it’s harmless fun – as is Davidson’s use of an assemblage of music drawn from 17 or more different sources, including David Bowie, Patti LaBelle, and Jefferson Airplane (White Rabbit, of course). For all its rough edges, it’s a slick, well thought-out production.
While it would be logical to describe it in linear terms, with a piece like Wonder, logic goes out the window. Or down a rabbit hole. So I’ll skip to the highlights.
The knockout song, not even credited in the program, is performed by the Queen of Hearts, who makes a brief but memorable appearance at the end of Book 1. [I recollect it being later in the program, but the second book seemed to move so much more quickly than the first that it may have just seemed later because it was closer to the end.] As the Queen, Miss Cherry Delight, also a transgender artist, slashed and burned her way through the Eurythmic’s Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), effectively giving fair warning that something may be lost if the queen wannabee succeeds, while at the same time emphatically suggesting to her (and anyone else in earshot) that something may be gained. Her portrayal was energizing, mesmerizing, and…dominating.
Once you get past the opening scenes, much of the dancing (which is the ingredient that pulses throughout the production) is both exciting and fun to watch. These company members have extensive dance backgrounds, and it shows.
In the Carroll story, Tweedledum and Tweedledee are fat twin brothers whom Alice meets after passing through the looking glass. Here they’re no longer fat. Or male. Except they sort of look male. Anyway, in the scene titled “Broken Glass,” Davidson has choreographed a duet for the Tweedles (Meghann Bronson-Davidson and Brittany Posas) that is exceptional. Aside from the matching costumes (all the costumes in the production were designed by Lori Gassie), the pair must execute intricate synchronized movement, as well as lifting and balancing atop and around each other. What takes it to a higher level is that for all its athleticism, there’s an element of grace to it. This isn’t a comic duet; it’s mutual reliance and discovery, and it’s very well done.
In the penultimate scene, “Chess Match,” the combination of the dancers’ positioning as pseudo chess pieces, without the benefit of Gassie’s costumes, and the lighting/sound drum roll of sorts that precedes it, makes the dance not only visually and choreographically interesting, but highly dramatic.
The monologue that precedes this scene shows Davidson at her conversational, confessional (matter-of-fact, not seeking any sort of redemption), convivial best. It has none of the artificiality of the opening asides to the audience, and even though she’s seated, it’s more animated, albeit without movement, than the brief solo she has earlier in the piece. Davidson is self-described as the reincarnation of Ruth St. Denis; while that may or may not be true, in the dancing parts of her Wonder role she appeared more, well, rabbity. Regardless, here, in her rabbit suit monologue, she acts somewhat the sad sack – or sad rabbit. It’s clever (as is a lot of the piece’s libretto, which is not credited but I presume is Davidson’s work), and a little sweet and self-effacing – a pause from didactic humor to internalized humor. And in a production with a lot of verbal glitz, it’s also welcome.
As good as these highlights are, the most unusual and extraordinary scene, and dance, in the show is saved for the ending, “Throne,” when the company (all except Davidson and Miss Cherry Delight) climb all over themselves to reach the Queen’s crown. It sounds garish, but as Davidson has choreographed it and the women execute it, it becomes a mound (a visual throne) of bodies in motion; a moving sculpture – kinetic architecture, if you will – of complexity, purity, and beauty.
As much as Davidson’s White Rabbit and McCullough’s Alice, Cheshire Puss is the glue that holds the piece together, and Swisher, a company veteran, does a fine job with it, with appropriate Cheshire Cat mannerisms and a commanding presence – and her delivery of Jabberwocky was spot on. Alice is a nice girl from Kansas (wait – that’s the company’s next production), er, from a country estate in England, but she’s somewhat bland and clueless, and until the last few scenes, McCullough played it that way without blending into the scenery (such as it is), which is not easy to pull off. In the variety of roles I mentioned, Markewich seemed to be everywhere at once. And all three, in addition to Bronson-Davidson and Posas (who also doubled as the March Hare and the Mad Hatter respectively), delivered solid dancing execution.
It may be uneven, and not quite ready for prime time – and it isn’t a show you’d want to take your kids to (unless you have exceptionally sophisticated kids), but it’s well worth a trip to the edge of Soho. Or is it the edge of the Lower East Side? Or Nolita? I suppose it depends on your point of view. But, like the differences that Wonder/Through the Looking Glass Houses both teaches and celebrates, it doesn’t matter.