When 13-year-old Eliza Grayson first takes the stage, she looks like the 1865 book version or 1951 Disney movie version of “Alice in Wonderland.”
Blue dress with a white pinafore.
But as the Mudlark Theater’s “I’m Alice” progresses, Eliza, a student at Haven Middle School, will also play a pig, and then two other Alices.
In fact, the 16 young actors in Mudlark’s version of the Lewis Carroll children’s classic all play Alice in one form or another, hence the title, “I’m Alice.”
Andrew Biliter is the artistic director of the Evanston-based youth theater program, and the author and director of “I’m Alice.”
The play takes the premise of Alice’s adventures with all sorts of amazing creatures in Wonderland, and, as Eliza Grayson puts it, lets each actor uncover their “Alice-ness.”
And what, might you ask, is “Alice-ness?”
Well, according to Biliter, Alice was an outsider in Wonderland after falling down the rabbit hole, lost, confused, excited, and discovering. Kind of like your typical adolescent.
“I’m Alice” lets each actor express “the vulnerability of being an outsider,” among characters like the Mad Hatter, Queen of Hearts, and the Cheshire Cat.
The play, Biliter says, “is less about Alice as a little girl in the 19th century and more that each person’s Alice is a bit of themselves.”
Each character “shines a light on an episode on his or her life” with a short monologue before turning into one type of Alice or another.
“It’s a little abstract,” Biliter explains. “It’s like 16 people all showed up thinking they were the lead, and they all find a way to take turns as both Alice and the creatures she runs into.”
“It’s a lot about a kid encountering the absurdity of the adult world,” Biliter continues. “You have a kid’s wisdom looking at all of these things and commenting on them.”
14-year-old Abbar Bhati, an 8th grader at Pope John XXIII school, plays both the Lobsterman (a Wonderland character), and one of the Alices.
Abbar says “Alice-ness” is “what makes the person themselves.”
Abbar’s Alice wears a light purple baseball cap, a tropical Hawaiian shirt, and skinny jeans, which sounds a lot more like something from Tim Burton’s 2010 live-action “Alice in Wonderland” than from the 1951 Disney animation.
Before turning into an Alice, Abbar gives a speech based on “how I’m one of the oldest in the cast, looking back and how I’ve grown, and where the past has gone.”
“I tried to be serious,” Abbar explained, “but I have some really funny stuff throughout.”
Eliza’s monologue is about “breaking free from others or from my old self,” just as the pig character in the play runs away.
“I’m Alice” will be Biliter’s last as Mudlark’s Artistic Director after 13 years. He plans to still do shows there, but not as the person in charge.
“I want to see what the next generation will do,” he explains.
Eliza and Abbar are still too young to run a theater program, although both say they see acting in their futures … perhaps professionally, perhaps as just an enjoyable activity.
While Mudlark is a young person’s theater company, director Biliter says “I’m Alice” is a play that adults can enjoy for the acting and the plot, and not simply because their child is in the cast.
“It will make an audience laugh when it’s funny, or gasp when magic happens,” he says.
“These kids have done more than learn their lines. They’re creating something unique and really worth seeing.”
Just as Alice encounters surprise after surprise, so will the audience.
As Eliza puts it, “I start out the play thinking it’s a normal Alice. Then I learn everyone is Alice.”
Which means if you want to discover your “Alice-ness,” when you get home, just look in the mirror and start thinking.
“I’m Alice” has performances on May 19-21 and May 27-28 at the Mudlark Theater, 1417 Hinman.
For more information on showtimes and tickets, go to mudlarktheater.org/tickets.