William Donnelly's Painted Alice, now onstage at the Light Box, may not be especially profound, but it is very funny. And it also gives the Mad Catters a chance to shine. The reasons to rush to this bright Miami Light Project presentation are easy to name: Michaela Cronin, Joseph Kimble, Scott Genn, Katie Amadeo, Heather Gallagher, and particularly Erik Fabregat, not to mention director Stuart Meltzer. The acting is delicious, the kind audiences will relish long after the show has closed.
Poor, poor Alice. She is a promising young artist on the verge of making it big and has just copped a fat commission from a prominent patron for an important painting. Life is good. She even has a gorgeous lover, a woman who appears to be sweet and supportive. Life is really good, wouldn't you say? Well, no. Our young painter cannot paint. Instead she spends hours in her studio staring at a blank canvas. Alice is trying to get going yet is going nowhere. She is suffering from the painterly equivalent of writer's block, and the malaise is spreading throughout her entire life. This is a comedy, by the way.
When a famous artist is blocked, the world awaits with bated breath, trusting or at least hoping the next masterpiece is on its way. When an unknown and unproven artist is blocked, frankly no one much cares. Few things are more pretentious than recitations of stunted creativity and an inability to produce something worthwhile. It is almost like watching someone decide what to pack for a trip that does not involve you in any way. But what if you are the one packing? And what if it is your journey that seems pointless? When validation, reward, acclaim, or even experience have yet to come your way, self-worth acquires funny perspectives. Vision goes askew, the angles vary wildly, and the whole world can seem upside down. That is just one aspect of Lewis Carroll's perennially fascinating The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland. And it is also the starting point of Donnelly's Painted Alice.
Mad Cat's Alice tries to relax by blasting her studio with psychobabbling tapes that praise her talent and urge her realization that "you love yourself unconditionally." Trouble is, she doesn't. And after a while, even the tape begins to call her a loser. That's when things begin to get weird. And whether it is because of a strange mushroom she eats from an hors d'oeuvres tray at a gallery, or simply because she's going bonkers, Alice's tale suddenly becomes a kaleidoscope of frustrating situations. In many ways, Painted Alice is a sitcom aspiring to the level of drama. Still, there is a vertiginous thrill to the title character's descent into weird logic. It is as though Donnelly holds up a funhouse mirror to the realities of support groups, artistic jealousies, wild parties, and desperately lonesome creative moments.
Alice comes face to face with one of her early works, a picture of a mermaid who comes to life. The figure in the piece demands to know why she was painted. "I tried my best," Alice tells her subject, only to be told it wasn't good enough. This is the response she receives: "You know who else tried their best? Everyone who ever fucked up anything. Ever!" Things get even rougher when Alice runs into a group of fellow artists, some of whom have long been dead. Among them is an artist who committed suicide; she confesses it was her demise that ultimately made her paintings successful. Painted Alice presents a world of callow dealers, stupid critics, and needy people who know nothing about art yet critique Alice all the same.
Mad Cat's cheap and chic production is fine. Karelle Levy's costume designs are wickedly original, even when paying tribute to the original Wonderland production's Tweedledee and Tweedledum characters. The costumes are especially notable because many of them serve as consistently improbable sight gags. The set by Paul Tei is vast and simple, clever in its use of blank sliding panels as the multilayer site of the audience's imagination. Natan Samuels's sound design, which includes quotations of the "dun dun" musical sting from TV's Law & Order during the play's trial scene, is a hoot.
The parallels to Carroll's Wonderland are superficial and random. Carroll's logic is hardly that of a dream but rather of a rigorous philosophy class; Donnelly's is easier, looser, and ultimately less satisfying. The fluid sequence of short scenes works to a point particularly given Meltzer's fast and funny direction but it also masks a certain dramaturgical laziness and more than a touch of shallowness in comparison to the deep subject matter. Donnelly's Alice sort of goes down a rabbit hole, but present are only the broadest strokes of the novel's key figures the White Rabbit and Queen of Hearts though there are what could be considered versions of the Magic Caterpillar and the bizarre Mock Turtle. Only Carroll's Mad Tea-Party (or perhaps Walt Disney's adorable animated version of it) pushes the playwright close to Carroll's bite and dry wit. It is a very good scene, and it signals, even if a tad late, that Donnelly's Painted Alice might have a leg on which to stand next to her fantastic Wonderland ancestor.
To watch the shameless, hilarious, and vulnerable Fabregat relish a string of geographically untraceable accents in multiple roles is to understand why the theater is so much fun. And Painted Alice is a lot of fun.