Catastrophic's There Is a Happiness That Morning Is; What Theater Is Supposed to Be
Photo by Anthony Rathbun
In 2011, Catastrophic Theatre mounted Mickle Maher's boldly original dedication to "love, sex and the poetry of William Blake," There Is a Happiness That Morning Is and due to popular demand, they have brought the production back for another limited run. Now being performed in their newly christened, very own theater space (the previous incarnation was done in their small office space), the play features the same three actors as in its previous run, Amy Bruce, Troy Schulze and Kyle Sturdivant, with Catastrophic Artistic Director Jason Nodler directing.
The stage is set quite simply; two podiums and a large chalkboard make up the minimal yet effective set design. We are at a financially failing liberal arts college where Bernard (Schulze) and his lover Ellen (Bruce) are two professors who happen to both teach the poetry of William Blake. The play opens with Bernard's acknowledgment to his Blake class that he and Ellen got somewhat swept away during the previous evening when the two, in the midst of a Blake oratory, went at it on the campus lawn for all to see. In two very different accounts of the incident, Bernard and Ellen describe the impact of the event, metaphorically through two of Blake's poems, Infant Joy and The Sick Rose. Very quickly it is understood that the two lovers have vastly dissimilar reactions to their indiscretions and the consequences that have resulted -- they are forced to apologize.
The entire play is written in rhymed verse, and the first half consists of monologues by the two actors of the event and how it is related to Blake's writing. For Bernard the act of passion was a thing of beauty, two bodies coming together out of pure love and exultation. Bernard's recounting of the evening is childlike and dreamy and Schulze makes his innocence, and perhaps naivete, absolutely convincing and lovable. He is like that kid who just lost his virginity at the prom; he's all smiles and boyish charm. To Bernard, Blake's poem about Infant Joy perfectly describes the happiness that he feels for his partner and their ardor for one another.
Ellen, on the other hand, does not see eye to eye with him. Bruce plays her as a tightly wound up ball of nerves. She refuses to apologize to the school or to the Dean (Sturdivant) because she doesn't think he deserves an apology. Ellen is painfully angry and Bruce gives her the perfect amount of emotion and depth, but it's not just the impropriety of her own actions that has gotten her down or the fact that this incident has caused her to question her love for Bernard; she has cancer. Ellen is Blake's Sick Rose; "an invisible worm," as the poem states, is growing inside of her.
While some of the reasons behind Ellen's anger toward Bernard and their fleeting love seem out of character, the duality between Bernard and Ellen's perceptions and the influence their night of love has had on them is a wonder to watch, especially as it's woven into both the poetry of Blake and Maher's own mastery over the English language.
But then, things get thrown for a loop.
Not to give too much away, the Dean, whom the two quarrel over the need to give penance to, shows up with a shocking admission of his own. From that moment on, the tone of the play changes dramatically. Prior to this point, the writing had many moments of laughter but was ultimately a sad tale of misperceptions and the very human nature of fear of death, love and what that all means. The words guided the actors; however, with the entrance of the Dean, the switch got flipped and the actors took over the words. Perhaps too much of it was played for laughs as opposed to just letting the words do their thing. It was certainly very funny from that point on; Sturdivant is a brilliant comedic actor. I won't say that one tone was better than the other, but it did change the trajectory of the play and it was jarring.
This is not a simple play, which is what is so wonderful about it. It makes you think, and you have to pay attention. Maher's verse and plot are so intricately married to the two Blake poems that you will feel proud of yourself for keeping up with it all. There is context interlaced with subtext interlaced with connotation and it's all masterful, while not taking itself too seriously. It's fun to watch a contemporary play with rhyming couplets because it's littered with rhymes of words like "dickwad."
Go with your thinking cap on tight, but go, seriously. This is what theater is supposed to be.
Running through May 25. Wednesday-Saturdays. Pay-what-you-want. Catastropictheatre.com.