The Performant: Surrealistic mellow

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Doing the Lobster Quadrille at The Mad Hatter’s Ball

A singular bit of whimsy, Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland may be one of the only childhood fantasias to be embraced equally by linguists, logicians, and users of psychedelic drugs. The setting of an unlikely hero’s quest undertaken by a pedantically logic-bound child, Wonderland’s curiously ordered chaos seems designed specifically to undermine any rote adherence to convention, even to those of storytelling.

In fact, one of the defining qualities of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass is that exactly none of the characters, including the protagonist, are particularly sympathetic, and Wonderland itself, unlike Oz, say, doesn’t have a lot to recommend it as a vacation spot save the prevalence of the aforementioned psychedelics. But as a cultural touchstone, Wonderland has proven to have some serious staying power, and continues to baffle and inspire children and adults who remember what it is to be a child, alike.

At Saturday’s Mad Hatter’s Ball—an offshoot of the Bay Area’s annual homage to Lewis Carroll and his strange creations, The Cheshire Rock Opera—a colorful array of musicians and masqueraders sauntered around the perimeter of Oakland’s 410 Ballroom, a weird little Wonderland all its own, tucked innocuously just off of Broadway. Including Red Queens, White Rabbits, Black Cards, and almost every color and character in between, their raucous cacophony appeared slightly muted, as if tinged with aural sepia. In fact, everything about the event emerged gently sepia-toned, serving as it did as a precursor to Sunday’s Steamstock festival, billed as a steampunk’d “Woodstock from an alternate past,” and featuring many of the bands playing the Ball.

The brainchild of Sean Lee aka One Man Banjo, the Ball opened with a brief set by the Mummy Dummies, one of Lee’s many side projects, setting the alt-Americana tone for the evening which included bursts of swamp rock (The Slow Poisoner), puckish honky-tonk piano-playing (Victoria Victrola), gypsy caravan cabaret (Vagabondage) and a healthy dose of ukulele-infused skiffle (5 Cent Coffee). In between guests, the anchoring group, Lee’s “Hatter’s Band” played selections of Carroll’s own nonsensical lyrics, including the aforementioned lobster quadrille and the inevitable sing-along “Soup of the Evening,” a Mock Turtle original set to an enticingly jaunty tune, inspiring even the timid to at least sway in time. Unlike the Cheshire Rock Opera, no jousting Jabberwocks appeared on the scene to do fearsome battle, but as herald to January’s event, the ball whetted our appetites for wonder, with a tantalizing amuse-bouche of crustacean ballet, (Mock) turtle soup, and jug (band) wine.

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