BWW Reviews: Blake Lives, Stars Shine in WSC Avant Bard's THERE IS A HAPPINESS THAT MORNING IS
Poetry lovers who have a special place in their hearts for that enigmatic mystic, William Blake, are in for a special treat this month. WSC-Avant Bard is producing Chicago playwright Mickle Maher's brilliant verse comedy, There is a Happiness that Morning Is, and happiness of a truly delicious, adult variety is there in spades.
Set in a college long past its prime, in a decrepit undergraduate classroom-complete with those horrible plastic desk-seats-we get to witness the complete meltdown of two literature professors as they put their own personal, Blakeian spin on a bout of ferocious love-making they indulged in the night before. In public. In front of their students. Adam-and-Eve like. Not a fig leaf in sight (or so we're told).
With the help of a low-tech blackboard we watch as these two love-birds, straight out of the 60's, write out their favorite Blake poems and proceed to give highly contrasting glosses on them, in light of the previous night's doings. Bernard, a classic folk-revival hipster, ecstatically celebrates "Infant Joy," one of Blake's Songs of Innocence, while his partner-in-crime-and-tenure, Ellen, offers an idiosyncratic take on "The Sick Rose" from Songs of Experience, which holds a darker, sadder meaning. Both of them, expected to apologize to the student body for their shameless canoodling, air out some nasty rants against the school's administration; only then do they discover that their nemesis, President Dean, has been in the classroom the whole time. Dean proceeds to vent his own spleen (sans Blake), and once he gets rolling the revelations take the play on a bender, with twists and turns all the more skillfully executed because they are done in couplets.
What transpires in this 90-minute verse trio is often thrilling; I admit to having a soft spot for Blake, but as performed by this ensemble it is unsurpassed. Brian Crane brings us all the charisma, air-headed optimism and sensuality of the flower-child of yore; as Bernard he owns the stage and the audience, charming everyone and reminding us how much we miss that inspiring teacher who prowled the aisles, looked us in the eye, and told us how much poetry matters in our lives. As his partner Ellen, Lynn Sharp Spears gives the play its darker edge, and her bitterness and complex emotions are truly compelling. (Her musical gifts are discreetly on display as well, a nice touch). Mario Baldessari, meanwhile, tears down the house as President Dean, giving the concept of histrionics a run for its money. His frenetic, high-voltage comic rant manages the feat of making you laugh even harder than before.
Director Jay Hardee has created an atmosphere where the cast can communicate with us, and with each other, with great ease, and it is clear that he wants us to appreciate the writing as much as the performers. Colin Dieck makes a virtue of the friendly confines of Theatre On the Run, where audience members are encouraged to sit in several rows of student chairs up front (please do-this is one show it pays to be a part of!). Jennifer Tardiff Beall has found a good balance of hippie chic and tweedy academia in her costumes, and-this being a verse play-a special shout-out to vocal coach Christine Hirrel is in order, for ensuring that the language gets its due.
Happiness was a huge hit at the Fall Fringe festival last year, and richly deserves this full revival; not only is Maher's ear for verse spot-on, you simply cannot ask for a better cast.
Production Photo: Brian Crane as Bernard. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
There is a Happiness that Morning Is runs November 4-23 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 South Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington VA. Tickets are available online at AvantBard.Ticketleap.com or by calling 703-418-4808.