What is the secret of happiness? If we took everybody who claimed to have an answer to that elusive question and laid them end to end, the line would probably stretch from DC to Armenia, where this utterly charming, thoughtful tale, whose lessons are so gently imparted, they go down as if spooned by Mary Poppins, is based. While ostensibly aimed at grades pre-K to 6, the multi-generational crowd at the performance I attended was thoroughly delighted; even grandmas and grandpas responded with their inner child.
The two performers, Jack Novak and Alina Collins-Maldonado, are masters of their craft, and address their target audience as new friends. They take turns describing to the audience what they can expect (“We’ll be playing a bunch of different characters”), what will be expected of them (on the didactic side, not to make noise so that everybody can enjoy the show; on the fun side, to join the actors and become part of the show), and offer the shortest, simplest, succinctest course on what actors do: “We pretend to be someone else.”
The fable, based on Armenian and Italian folk tales, tells of the poor, deplorably miserable Prince Parsley of the Kingdom of Spice, and his search for happiness. The king’s attendant hires entertainers to cheer him, to no avail. (The brightly colored costumes by Denise Young are designed to appeal to children, but adults will enjoy them, too; the opposite can be said for many of the jokes, some of which will float harmlessly over the little ones’ heads, with others offering learning opportunities).
First among the variety of aspiring—and perspiring, given the lack of air conditioning in Studio’s crow’s nest Stage 4 space—vaudevillians: “Ethel Mermaid” (Collins-Maldonado), belting out “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” her boobs cupped in Frisbee-sized white seashells, her feet encased in loudly (in color and volume) leviathan floor-slapping flippers. Who is duly yanked off the stage.
She is quickly replaced by (Collins-Maldonado again; the speed at which the two accomplish character and costume changes will have you wondering if they’ve cloned themselves) a pinafored, white-braided, German-accented, accordion-toting, opera-shrieking Heidi, who fares no better. Nor do any of the others.
None of them brings a smile to the face—Novak has a hilariously elastic one, his frown so exaggerated, it’s as if invisible fingers are yanking down the corners—of the disconsolate monarch-to-be. So he sets off on foot to find the secret of happiness. There seems to be little hope—until he meets a gypsy, who tells him the secret: he must find a “truly happy person,” and put on that person’s shirt.
In a search that will be familiar to anyone who’s read Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, our hero starts looking for happiness in all the wrong places. Neither the obscenely wealthy “Baba Ghanoush,” who finally admits he suspects people only like him for what he can do for them, nor the famous singer on tour, who breaks down in heart-rending sobs when she can’t remember her children’s names, is truly happy.
So—who is? The secret is one that will be familiar to the adults in the crowd; one that, if it hasn’t been revisited in a while, will give them a chance to journey back to their own childhood. And those seminal moments when they realized they were leaving it behind.
The Shirt of Happiness plays through July 28, 2013 at The Studio Theatre-Stage 4 – 1501 14th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For performance information and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.