New York theatre gives us Broadway, and the best of commercial theatre, and the great American Musical, and a whole lot of other good stuff, but Chicago gives us . . . the alternative.
Better theatrical minds than mine have tried to parse the differences between theatre as it is in the Big Apple versus The Second City without success.
But I can tell you this: when I hear that a playwright or an actor has sowed their theatrical oats in the Windy City, I sit up and take notice, because I know I am likely to see something fresh. Which is not to say that one town is superior to the other, but that we surely need both for a balanced diet of American theatricality.
Theatre Oobleck, from whence cometh Mickle Maher, the playwright who wrought “There Is A Happiness That Morning Is” is a good example. They have been performing in Chicago for more than a quarter of a century, wherever they can find a stage, as they have no permanent home. Their work has been described, variously, as “quirky,” “experimental,” and “unusual.” I would add “sophisticated,” “brilliant,” and “fun.” Unlike other Chicago troupes, such as Second City and Steppenwolf, they are relatively unknown beyond the theatrical cognoscenti, but, believe me, they deserve your attention.
Founding member Mickle Maher is the author of several celebrated plays, and we should be delighted that Performers Under Stress has seen fit to offer the Bay area premiere of “There Is A Happiness That Morning Is.” Performers Under Stress, not surprisingly, is a company transplanted to California’s City By The Bay from Illinois’ City By The Lake, and, like Theatre Oobleck, they tend to fly under the radar. But you should be attuned.
This remarkable play presents two professors in a college classroom lecturing on William Blake. They are good professors and the lectures are truly educating. Alright. But do lectures make a play? They do in this case. How so? Well, you see, prior to this day’s classes the two middleaged professors—a married couple—had sex on the college green for an audience of students. Big oops. And now, as they lecture on their favorite poet, they must justify themselves. And that is only the beginning of the complications that flow through this marvelous collage of Blake’s poetry and Blakeian themes of innocence, experience, love, and death.
And did I mention that they lecture in rhymed verse? Yes, this is a verse play, And yet, Mickle’s line is so flexible, his rhyming so subtle, that I didn’t notice until well into the production. You might not, either, unless you’re ready for it, so I’m tipping you off.
One reason you might not notice is that you are likely to be laughing too hard. Along with its many other pleasures, intellectual and emotional, Mickle’s play is really, really funny.
As the situation develops, we learn details of the lecturers’ lives that enrich our understanding of Blake as well as the themes explored. It all starts to fit together as neatly as a jigsaw puzzle.
And then, in comes a third character—James Dean, the creepy President of the college—played by Geo Epsilanti in a manner to set your teeth on edge. The denouement is unexpected, moving, tearful, and funny.
As the professors, Scott Baker and Valerie Façhman are each riveting, funny, and moving in their own way. They give excellent performances.
Back in 2014, playwright Mickle Maher told an interviewer:
“I want plays to be satisfying on every level. I don’t want people to think in terms of comedy and tragedy. I want there to be as much tears and laughter as possible, as many ideas as possible shoved into a single space.”
If that’s what he aims for, he hit the bullseye with this one.
“There Is A Happiness That Morning Is” continues through November 23 at the Phoenix Theater. For further information click here.
Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“There Is A Happiness That Morning Is” by Mickle Maher. Produced by Performers Under Stress; Director: Katja Rivera. Technical Director and Lighting Design: Colin Johnson. Intimacy Choreographer: Kevin Clarke.
Mr. Bernard Barrow: Scott Baker. President James Dean: Geo Ipsilanti. Professor Ellen Parker: Valerie Façhman.