‘There is a Happiness that Morning Is’ at WSC Avant Bard

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There is one howl of a good time at There is a Happiness that Morning Is at WSC Avant Bard. The production is a masterly feat of acting prowess full of precise, adroit comic work and squinting eye ability to speak in rhymed couplets at dizzying speeds. All with three actors who are more often than not seen on the edges of plays rather than at the center. Not this time! This time the center of attention comes convincingly to and is well-earned by Lynn Sharp Spears and Brian Crane, along with key scene work of Mario Baldessari.

(From left:) Lynn Sharp Spears (Ellen), Brian Crane (Bernard), Mario  Baldessari (President Dean). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
(From left:) Lynn Sharp Spears (Ellen), Brian Crane (Bernard), Mario
Baldessari (President Dean). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

There is a Happiness that Morning Is was penned by Mickle Maher, a playwright not well known in this area. Maher teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago. He is a Co-Founder of Chicago’s Theater Oobleck. Happiness was first performed at Theater Oobleck several years ago.  It is was first seen in this area at the 2013 fallFRINGE.

Here is Maher’s set up: Two middle-aged professors , described as “flesh of a certain age,” each teach a college course on Romantic poet William Blake (1757-1827). Blake is that poet who wrote well-remembered lines such as, “Tiger, Tiger burning bright in the forests of the night.” He is also known for his vivid, if not psychedelic to some, mind-opening painted images.

As a jumping-off point, Maher cleverly  juxtaposes some of  Blake’s poetic works that have completely different sensibilities. The works are “Infant Joy” from Songs of Innocence and “Sick Rose” from Songs of Experience. Maher  has each of his comedy’s two professors take the poem’s essence as their personality. One (Crane) is  soft and sweet-tongued;  the other  (Sharp Spears) is brusque and pointed.

So you say to yourself, “So what?” Well seems as if the two are long-time lovers and just had public sex on the campus green. Not only have students witnessed the two making love, but so has the college president. To save their jobs, apologies are expected from the two professors. Or at least some defense of themselves. The audience as “students” become witnesses to if, when and how any apologies might be forthcoming. Time is an enemy; it is the last day of the spring semester.

Happiness begins as the audience takes-in two “lectures” on Blake’s poetry using rhyming poetic couplets for dialogue. One is given by Bernard (Crane) and the other  by his lover, Ellen (Sharp Spears). Each moves actively about the set, even interacting with the audience. Later the play delves more deeply into each character’s personality including their long relationship before being taking the audience on a roller-coaster ride into new heights. All in 90 minutes without intermission.

Jay Hardee’s direction shows him to be a match maker extraordinaire with a show-man’s flair. Hardee has wound up his actors and then taken his hand away. Off they go. They are in the moment, having found a chemistry within themselves and as partners on stage. They burn brightly. Though yes, sometimes the acting crosses an invisible line from hilarity to too-much Borsch Belt extravaganza.

Hardee wrote in his program notes, he wanted the audience to “really experience the poetic pagan magic of the central love affairs” between the two professors. That he did. He also presented the two central characters as appealing lovable people.

Brian Crane is all sweet innocence. He regularly explains himself in this manner, “I happy am” and “Joy is my name.” He is just so sincere and full of child-like joy. He wants everyone to feel the same. Over time he shows himself to be a one who submits to higher authority, whether the woman he loves or college bureaucracy. He provides an engaging personality for his character as one overly-smitten with love. Yet he can be a protective presence when needed. As his words gush forth his body language follows, mimicking what he says. He is Blake’s “lamb.”

Lynn Sharp Spears is an all formidable presence. She is a flaming torch and stronger presence opposite Crane. Her dialogue is littered with profanity that is slipped in as if in real life. She knows of the nasty invisible worms that can live within and eat up pretty things. Her delivery of words make troublesome emotions clearly felt. She has gems of mouthy sarcasm that we can’t wait to hear more of. Her delivery of dialogue gives its release into well-earned laughter rather than put-offs. Her snarky ways also have a reason that the audience comes to learn. Overall, she is cock-sure. She is Blake’s “tiger.”

There is also Mario Baldessari as President Dean. He is Maher’s “deus ex machina.” Without giving away much, Baldessari is a key, surprise character.  Let your reviewer say he brings hysteria to a very visual presence. There was some Gene Wilder in his early days about Baldessari aura.

According to WSC Avant Bard Artistic Director W. Thompson Prewitt this is an all-new staging of the 2013 fallFRINGE production. The current set at Arlington’s Theatre on the Run by Colin Dieck gives off a semblance of a college class room. One that is far from the Ivy League. It includes a very well-used chalk board. Big kudos to Fight and Movement Choreographer James Finley.

(From left:) Mario Baldessari (President Dean), Lynn Sharp Spears (Ellen), and Brian Crane (Bernard). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
(From left:) Mario Baldessari (President Dean), Lynn Sharp Spears (Ellen), and Brian Crane (Bernard). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

So, let’s give much admiration and high marks for WSC Avant Bard’s production of There is a Happiness that Morning Is by Mickle Maher. It has a genuine exuberance that sucks the audience in and transports them into a witty, literate world gone amuck. Leave any baggage of your day behind you. Come to be smitten. There is no sub text. Re-read your William Blake when you get home or over drinks with your iPad after the show. Yup, it is definitely “theatre on the edge.”

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

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There is a Happiness that Morning Is plays through November 23, 2014 at WSC Avant Bard performing at Theatre on the Run – 3700 South Four Mile Run Drive, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office (703) 418-4808, or purchase them online