Tortured artists are an insufferable bunch. As partners they tend to drag you down with them. As characters, though, they can be lots of fun to watch—when you’re not on the receiving end of the drama. Case in point: “Painted Alice: The Musical,” running through November 9 at the Plaxall Gallery in Astoria.
I’ve seen many takes on Carroll’s classic, from Disney’s neutered Cheshire Cat to Czech animator Jan Švankmajer’s Freudian stop-motion masterpiece. But never have I seen the Victorian fable transplanted so effectively to another time and place: the studio of a tortured American artist who happens to be called Alice. Bound by a deal with the devil for a commission she cannot complete, Alice (Tana Sirois) sings her frustration into an empty canvas. She pushes away her loving partner Dinah (Meghan Ginley) to make room for more wallowing. She reels from a visit from the devil herself (Molly Kelleher), a collector who struts in like Cruella de Vil and delivers line after biting line with lip-lined precision.
What happens next should be obvious enough: Alice goes through the canvas. But that’s where the predictability ends. Kelleher soon reappears to nail yet another hilarious supporting role, this time as a badly drawn and deeply resentful mermaid from Alice’s childhood portfolio.
In a series of songs and vignettes based ever so loosely on episodes from the book, Alice gets roped into a support group for tortured artists, joins a discussion society with nothing to say, and ends up at the mercy of Kelleher’s Queen of Hearts. Along the way she meets an artist who offed herself in a dryer (Jamie Shapiro), a once-edgy painter who gave it all up for a bougie life in the burbs (a rip-roaring Jack Bowman), and a saber-rattling Italian ancestor on roller skates (Meghan Ginley).
Curioser and cuirassier.
The multitalented Tana Sirois, whose “Crushing Baby Animals” earned positive reviews from Max and Kirill last summer, manages to turn the traditionally passive, reactive Alice into someone passionate and proactive. Her powerful voice is partly to thank. But it’s also due to her total, deadpan commitment to the character, however absurd the circumstances. Her Alice aches to understand and be understood. She may be in a dream world, but she acts as if her artistic career and hence her very life is at stake.
The rest of the cast does a great job of holding Alice aloft, musically and literally, whether harmonizing with her vocals or pall-bearing her through a picture frame. They also deliver some outstanding solos in their own right. Jack Bowman is a standout in this regard. But the only cast member who could justly be accused of stealing the show is Molly Kelleher. Her voice, her stage presence, her acting chops, her grab-bag of spot-on accents—wow. I think I have a girl crush.
Anyway, the lyrics by William Donnelly and Michael Mahler overflow with witty enjambments and clever twists, my personal fav being the discussion group, a techno song full of vapid cell phone lingo. Probably the most serious tune was the final number, “Make Room in Your Life for Love.” I thought it was a moving finale with a valid point. My ex would have called it sentimental bollocks.
Did I mention my ex? Or why I haven’t written Playdate lately? I’ve been off Tinder because I started seeing someone. And he’s—you guessed it—a tortured artist. A sculptor, to be exact. It was fun at first, the heady conversations at 3 am, the modeling sessions with happy endings, the random trips to places no guy would ever take me, like the TWA Flight Terminal at JFK. For a while I felt like the center of his universe. But little by little he grew restless. He couldn’t sculpt anymore because I made him complacent, a.k.a. happy. He wanted us to see other people. If you live in New York, you know the drill.
I mean I get it, he’s afraid of becoming Jack Bowman’s suburban dropout. But I have no desire to play Dinah to his sculpted Alice. So I guess it’s back to Tinder and Playdate.
The date I brought loved “Painted Alice.” There was some kind of Indian party going on in another part of the gallery with a Bollywood DJ and kids in saris. We danced with them during the interval and had a great time in general. I can’t promise kids in saris, but I can promise fun and laughter, insights into the art world and the artistic temperament, and some cool video installations by Guillermos Laporta. Only two chances left to see this show. Don’t miss it. Seriously.
I’ll be OK.
“Painted Alice: The Musical” is running at the Plaxall Gallery through November 9. For information and tickets visit: licartists.org