It is a truth universally acknowledged that growing up sucks. It comes with greater responsibilities, relationships and societal expectations. And when you’re an artist, “growing up” can become even more fraught; who can live up to their fullest creative potential while worrying about things like maintaining a regular sleep schedule or paying a mortgage?
These are the questions that the characters in Anne Yumi Kobori’s new play — fittingly inspired by Lewis Carroll’s and J.M. Barrie’s famous children’s books — must grapple with. Utopia Theatre’s premiere of “Every Day Alice” on Friday night was sparingly staged, thematically resonant and thoughtfully written, taking its audience down the deep, dark rabbit hole of what it means to be an adult and an artist in a world full of “ordinary” people.
The play follows Alice (Anne Yumi Kobori), a writer whose first book caused her to be committed to a mental hospital. Alice is supported by her boyfriend Peter (Joshua Marx), her publisher James (Ben Euphrat) and his wife, a mute dancer named Isabel (Jessica Uher). Alice is eventually released from the hospital, but remains unmotivated to take her anxiety medication because it dulls her imagination, making her unable to write.
Throughout the play, Alice and the other characters suffer from issues in their respective relationships. The group also exhibits a reluctance to commit to reality as opposed to their artistic, more outlandish pursuits: Alice wants to get lost in her stories, Peter wants to go off on adventures, Isabel wants to dance and flirt, and James wants his marriage to remain stagnant, without the stress of children.
Navigating these interpersonal conflicts in a grounded manner presents a challenge, but the production shies away from faux theatricality with the cast portraying the characters with staunch realism and unflinching intimacy. This effort is certainly exacerbated by the small space that the play is staged in: audience members can literally sit at arm’s length from the actors while watching them dance, kiss, fight and drink. It feels like peeking through a neighbor’s window without permission.
For a play based on children’s books, the subject matter can seem surprisingly dark — but fans of the source material have nothing to fear. Alice still gets “curiouser and curiouser,” and there’s a dream sequence where James — our Captain Hook equivalent — busts out an old sea shanty. Katie Rubin is also an unparalleled delight as Hattie (one guess at who she’s based on). Hattie is the only character allowed to be truly campy, and Rubin’s brief appearances in the role milk this for all that it’s worth.
Of course, the play is still a work in progress of sorts. Certain plot threads run long, and because of the actors having to constantly change the set decorations during blackouts, the transitions between scenes can slow things down. But a lack of polish doesn’t diminish the shine of Kobori’s sharp, funny dialogue and ambitious ideas. Though the play initially presents itself as an adaptation, it ends up being more of a layered meditation on adult life. These characters all seem to be playing at being adults, but their impulsive actions continue to reveal the children within.
Perhaps the play means to say that we’re all like Peter and Alice, stifling our senses of adventure for the sake of seeming grown-up. Or perhaps it means to say that these are not role models to follow; artistry doesn’t mean you can abandon all commitments, no matter how romantic that abandonment sounds. Either way, it’s a play that will leave audiences thinking.
At least, until their imaginations distract them.
Grace Orriss covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].