Alice in Cyberland

Trying to make sense of everything that happens in the LIDA Project's Alice is like trying to decipher every line of routing code that appears at the bottom of an e-mail. A few characters and phrases sound and look familiar, but deciphering the whole assemblage seems an impossible task for all but the most computer literate.

Not to worry. Shortly after this adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland begins, bits and fragments of ideas start to come together, and the underlying debate about technology's influence on our lives eventually takes shape. For the rest of the play, director Brian Freeland and a ten-person ensemble succeed in raising several questions: Has our love affair with the Internet opened new frontiers of information or merely a floodgate to age-old backwaters of thought? Do computers have a soul? If they don't, are they without original sin? Is it possible to be objective when one's view is always clouded by the subjectivity of personal experience? And will humans one day achieve a form of immortality by uploading their consciousnesses into machines?

The 75-minute work, currently being presented in LIDA's newly furbished uptown warehouse, begins as several actors pace around an expansive playing area dotted with black-and-white checkerboard patterns. Carrying small tubes that shine with intense fluorescent light, they buzz about like human-sized computer blips while mumbling dialogue that's completely incomprehensible. Eventually, we're introduced to Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll of Wonderland fame. We learn that Dodgson, who was also an Anglican deacon, struck up an unusually close -- was it unhealthy? -- relationship with a young woman in his church, Alice Liddell, who served as a model for the Alice character in his books. As the play unfolds, characters such as the Red Queen, Mad Hatter, White Rabbit and Cheshire Cat momentarily appear, only to drift into the background as the dynamic between Charles and Alice develops center stage.

Freeland and the actors quickly establish a fanciful atmosphere that's perpetually on the verge of exploding into an Orwellian nightmare. One character murmurs, "At the time it all seemed so very natural," and the soft sounds of chirping birds and gurgling water can be heard in the distance. Pools of warm light bathe Alice and Charles, who sometimes glide about the stage in a cleverly designed watercraft that never makes a sound. Then scenes that combine present-day conventions and romantic ideals play out amid grayish shafts of light. As Alice embarks on her journey through the looking glass, she holds a computer mouse in one hand while walking, talking advertisements surround her. One character announces a deal on handbags, a few hawk their hardcore adult wares and still others chatter away using arcane computer terms. It all happens so matter-of-factly that Alice's statement to the audience, "Being dominated by a machine isn't such a bad thing," seems like a natural conclusion for her to draw. Things take on a more sinister tone, however, when a systematic rearrangement of the letters in Carroll's name comes to a chilling end, and when an ominous recitation of Carroll's "Jabberwocky" makes one wonder how the author would be viewed today if his reading public could check up on his private life by accessing information, whether rumor or fact, via the Internet. When Dodgson starts to compose great thoughts on a device supplied by Alice, his poetry begins to lose its potency and allure, and his ability to create hangs in the balance until the final scene, when both he and Alice experience something of an epiphany.

Through it all, Freeland and the actors maintain an admirable focus on the story, never bowing to the temptation to embellish their creation with impromptu commentary. Lyrically staged and acted, the sometimes-mystifying production reveals both the sanctity of the human soul and the technological barriers that encroach upon creativity. It also marks a welcome return to active duty for the LIDA Project, one of a handful of local fringe companies capable of consistently challenging our notions about art and reality -- a feat that's beautifully achieved in Alice.

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Jim Lillie

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