Published in KPBS On Air Magazine November 2000

Watch out! You’re about to fall down a rabbit hole. You are now entering the dark, dank underworld of Modernland. Nothing is as it seems. Nothing is what you expect. This is about Sledgehammer Theatre, after all.

“I always hated that singing flower crap,” Sledge artistic director Kirsten Brandt says dismissively of the Disney version of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 classic, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” “It missed the boat completely. It’s really a whole dream-slash-acid trip. Being the math junkie I am, and Lewis Carroll being a mathematician thoroughly into logic, I’ve always been interested in the logic of dreams and the dream-reality spectrum.”

And then, as if to make her wildest, darkest dreams come true, along came Kirsten. Not her evil twin, either. “I hope we’re both evil,” says Kirsten Nash, with a laugh.

Nash, a musician from Vancouver, just happened to have written a dark musical, Alice in Modernland, loosely based on the original. And she just happened to read an article about an offbeat, gutsy little theater in San Diego that mounts big musicals (that would be Sledgehammer and last year’s highly successful production of Sweet Charity). It wasn’t chance, according to Nash; it was fate.

Both women were originally from San Francisco. Both had “issues with Dad” (as Brandt puts it) and the same take on religion and society. In short, the same modern sensibilities. “She reminds me of myself ten years ago,” says Nash, who’s 39 to Brandt’s 29. “A strong gal who knows her stuff, who isn’t afraid to take chances.”

Nash, who’s written the music and lyrics for the ‘popera,’ says it’s really a new medium, a jazz-rock fusion. It’s set in the slimy world of the music biz, Nash’s own stomping grounds.

In the new version, Alice, struggling to leave behind a childhood of abuse and loneliness, seeks self-esteem and acceptance through musical stardom. On her journey, she gets caught up in the sex, drugs, R&R (and R&B) of the music industry, which swallows her up (like a rabbit hole) and then spits her out. The characters she meets are as surreal as the originals: The Queen, a bitchy, aging, transsexual pop star, with her backup ButtBoys; the Duchess, another been-there-done-that singer, backed by her extravagant Beauticians; Dora Mouse, Marching Harry and the Mad Hater, who work for Y.D. Rabbit (a hyper-wired albino record exec); and Mr. Big, a nasty worm (caterpillar?) of a guy, a multi substance- and people-abuser, head of the mega-label, Modernland Records. And of course, there’s C.C., the funky, smiling (Cheshire) Cool Cat trumpet-player who serves as the show’s narrator.

In 1997, a New York workshop production of Alice in Modernland was directed by London’s Steven Dexter, and the cast included members of the Broadway productions of Rent, Smokey Joe’s Café and Little Shop of Horrors. Now, with producing help from Nash and her businessman partner, her wild musical creations are being inhabited by a cast of 18. “I’m really jazzed about seeing it take shape in real life,” Nash says. “It’s like painting. I haven’t been able to put the colors in till now.”

The colors, as Brandt sees the piece, are “really dark, with echoes of light, moments where you’re able to find hope. I’m into balance, the feng shui of life, the yin and yang of everything. It’s a musical about getting in touch with your own soul; the journey — and the compromises — everyone has to make. I see Modernland as a little like San Francisco, but more metallic, really shiny and glittery, but underneath, really dirty and slimy. Kind of our hopes and our fears of what a city is. ”

As Nash sees it, the show is “a timeless twist on the human emotions which lurk within all of us: paranoia, insecurity, jealousy and fear. It’s a story about overcoming the dark side of the human condition, made real through the emotion-filled world of music” (from the script synopsis).

When this project is finished, both would love it to have an afterlife. Bigwig New York producers are scheduled to fly out. In the meantime, Nash, a mother of two who someday wants to write a novel, has already penned another (even darker) musical, The Bird in the Waterfall.

Brandt is hard at work on her next world premiere ensemble creation (in the jugular vein of Furious Blood), The Devil’s River, set to open next February. This is her first solo season (since the departure of co-founders Ethan Feerst and Scott Feldsher), but she sees herself maintaining the mission, “continuing to take risks, but re-inventing ourselves in a different way. This is a step in that direction.

“We’re not setting Les Miz in Syria. We won’t do Our Town… though I have thought of Oklahoma, which is totally about murder, sex and violence. I don’t mind pissing people off. I don’t do theater to entertain. I do theater to challenge people, and I hope to bring some message — personal and/or political — to everything I do. I think our audiences will love this rock-opera Alice. They’ll know it’s not just candy.”

Well, maybe mind-candy. Remember what the Doormouse said: Feed your head.

Alice in Modernland runs through November 26 at SledgehammerTheatre, 619-544-1484.

©2000 Patté Productions Inc.