“Think of this as theater in the round in reverse,” said the master of ceremonies, and I saw within moments what he meant – and why we’d been seated in swivel chairs. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” flows all around Wine-Up, as its cheerful physical chaos reflects the psychological chaos of its characters.
Citizens of the Universe specializes in stage adaptations of screenplays. “Why do this?” you may wonder, especially when (in this case) an Oscar-winning script came to two-dimensional life onscreen with Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet ideally cast in the leads. But there’s a point.
When we hear lovelorn Joel Barish and vivaciously unhinged Clementine Kruczynski battling and smooching before, behind and beside us, we feel more like neighbors than onlookers. Adapter James Cartee has also chosen a fresh and apt soundtrack; it often consists of post-’90s rock, but “Yakety Sax” sets off an especially wacky chase.
If you know the story, you won’t be surprised by events, although the head of the clinic that erases Joel and Clementine’s memories is now played by a woman (Kelly Ogden). She still has an affair with a female employee (Kacy Southerland), though no more is made of it than of the heterosexual fling in the film.
The narrative is a shade harder to follow onstage. Directors James Lee Walker II and Cartee don’t have the luxury of changing sets in so small a space – only 40 audience members can fit – so we sometimes struggle for a moment to know where we are.
Much of the play takes place in Joel’s memories, as he regrets his decision to eradicate Clementine and tries to “hide” with her in his mind from the machine probing his brain. Like the film, the play jumps in time between real actions and remembered ones, and the directors use their space efficiently to differentiate between the two.
The cast interacts mildly with the crowd, squirting a few of us once with water pistols or asking us to leave our seats briefly so actors can use them. Yet there’s not much interaction, so it never stopped seeming like a gimmick.
Colby Davis, who’s more restrained than Carrey, builds his performance slowly as Joel. At first he seems benumbed, staring about like a medicated owl. His emotions build, until he’s distraught at the idea of losing a woman who may not be good for him.
More remarkably, Megan York finally dispelled recollections of Winslet in her Oscar-nominated triumph. Winslet’s kookiness was always somehow endearing; York isn’t afraid to make Clementine sympathetic and broken and attractive and infuriating.
You may not like her now or feel that she and Joel must inevitably make each other wince. The ending struck me differently in the stage show than it did in the film: What I once took for optimism had more pain in it. Or perhaps that’s just my own memory, beginning to fade in this case after nine years of disuse. If you’re drawn to avant-garde theater, decide for yourself.