When Troy Schulze's character Bernard ambles onto the tiny stage of Catastrophic Theatre's "micro-theater" to open There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, he looks like a refugee from a modern-dress version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. He has the relaxed, tweedy vibe of the liberal arts professor that he is, but he is also covered in leaves and twigs, as if he'd just escaped from one of Shakespeare's forests.
But when Bernard stands behind the lectern and begins addressing his students — the audience, that is — we learn that he is animated not by the Bard but by William Blake, the wild man of the British Romantics. His lecture has two parts; he's going to unpack Blake's poem "Infant Joy" from Songs of Innocence and of Experience. He's also going to explain the leaves. Rather, he's going to apologize for the behavior that led him to be covered in same. The night before he and his love, Ellen, a fellow Blake scholar at the same financially strapped small college, had been inflamed by Blake's poetry to the point of ripping off their clothes and making love in front of their students — and school administration.
To keep their jobs, Bernard and Ellen are going to have to publicly apologize for their display of — what? Bernard argues that their love-making was an act of innocence, and he uses Blake's poem to make his case. "I happy am," goes the poem, and it goes for Bernard, too. Bernard is delighted, not sorry, about their public lovemaking, but he'll bow to convention to keep his job. He assumes that Ellen will, too.
There Is a Happiness That Morning Is
Through October 23. Catastrophic Theatre Micro-Theatre, 1540 Sul Ross, 713-522-2723. Pay-what-you-can; suggested price, $20.
Schulze is wonderful in this long opening monologue. He gives a down-home touch to the often high-flying rhetoric of playwright Mickle Maher. It's so high-flying, in fact, that much of it comes in rhyming couplets. But Schulze rides Maher's spectacularly well-crafted language — "I'm at war with sorrow" — with ease, coming across as a kind of ecstatic Jimmy Stewart.
While Bernard is addressing his morning class, Ellen (Amy Bruce) takes the stage, setting up for her afternoon class in which she is going to damn well refuse to apologize for anything. She has contempt for the school administration, particularly Dean James (Kyle Sturdivant), who threw a nasty floor mat over the copulating couple to shield his students' eyes.
The dirty mat coming down on Ellen's naked body offended her so deeply that she is no longer sure that she loves Bernard. She prepares a lecture on Blake's "The Sick Rose" as she gives her version of events. It's a "song of experience" in which Blake warns of "the invisible worm" that "has found out thy bed of crimson joy" and "does thy life destroy." In this formulation, Dean James is the joy-killing "worm" of experience.
This all sounds heavy, and certainly Maher gives you lots to cogitate on. But it's also tremendous fun. Maher's conceits and rhyming language provide a high-wire on which Schulze and Bruce perform expertly. At times Bruce's Ellen begins a rhyme, spoken in bitter tones, that Schulze's Bernard finishes with goofy grin.
Then the "flying worm" bursts onstage, in the person of Dean James. James upends the expectations of both Bernard and Ellen. He wasn't horrified by their lovemaking — he was turned on by it. He doesn't want to kill their Blake seminars; he's cut funding to the rest of the university so that they can continue. In short, he's in love — with both of them. He has been for years, and he's played the puppet-master in their lives, giving Bernard a teaching job that, as a former folk singer (a point of great hilarity), he's hardly qualified for. All so he can leech off of their love.
Despite the strength of the other performers, Sturdivant dominates the stage. A large actor bursting with manic energy (that sparkle in his eyes comes from a deep place), Sturdivant fills the stage with his character's degradation.
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Still, the play isn't perfect; some of the ideas become murky, and some of Maher's choices clang rather than ring true. Dean James's wormlike existence takes too much explaining. And the fact that one of the characters is given a fatal disease, and has only a few months to live, is never really taken seriously.
Still, I don't hesitate to recommend this play. Under Jason Nodler's direction, its energy never comes close to flagging, and the experience of seeing it in the tiny theater ups its already considerable ante.
Maher is a Catastrophic Theatre favorite. His The Strangerer and Spirits to Enforce were highlights of their 2008 season. They are the second company to perform There Is a Happiness, following only its premiere in his Chicago home theater. Next year Catastrophic will be premiering one of his plays.
That's exciting news, but don't wait until then.