Catastrophic’s “There Is a Happiness” Is a True Original

I can scarcely contain my enthusiasm for Catastrophic Theatre’s ideally realized presentation of Mickle Maher’s delightfully original There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, so I’m not even going to try.

Director Jason Nodler introduced us to this Chicago playwright’s distinctive and virtually unclassifiable work with Catastrophic’s deft productions of The Strangerer and Spirits to Enforce in 2008.

Would Maher’s latest live up to the ingenuity of those witty, wacky, multilayered works?

Happiness, in the first mounting since its premiere at Chicago’s Theatre Oobleck earlier this year, surpasses them. If you prize imagination, intelligence and genuine passion, you’ll be on cloud nine through all 90 minutes of this utterly unpredictable experience.

Happiness launches from what is apparently a prerequisite for Maher — a “how’d anyone think of that?” premise, seemingly simple yet rich in possibilities.

Long-married scholars Bernard and Ellen have been teaching William Blake’s poetry at a minor-league university for 15 years. The night before the play’s action, their passion for Blake and each other got the better of them, and they made love on the campus green for all to see. Now, with images of their indiscretion on the Internet, parents and donors want action. Whether the dean fires Bernard and Ellen depends on how each handles his/her respective apology in class.

That’s what the play depicts: Bernard’s morning and Ellen’s afternoon classes, unfolding simultaneously, each mounting a defense keyed to a particular Blake poem. Bernard cites Infant Joy from Songs of Innocence; Ellen references The Sick Rose, from Songs of Experience. Bernard is rhapsodic, beyond caring about repercussions, feeling their spontaneous act of joy has lifted him to a new level of understanding and appreciation. Ellen is anxious and angry, seemingly convinced that the crisis will mark the end of her career and marriage to Bernard.

Within the shrewdly confined situation, Maher achieves astonishing things. As we learn more about the characters, each revelation takes the play to new territory — now tragic, now farcical. Along the way, Maher scatters startling insights and resonant musings on life and love, art and death. What’s more, the entire play unfolds in rhymed verse, a challenge Maher pulls off brilliantly. With its grace, wit and profusion of clever rhymes, the language alone is reason enough to attend.

Director Nodler and cast members Amy Bruce, Troy Schulze and Kyle Sturdivant are at their best, exuberantly in sync with the writing’s uniqueness and creativity. Through apt staging, pace and atmosphere, Nodler quite convincingly turns Catastrophic’s microtheater, a modest room in the company’s offices, into the classroom of the action. He and his cast sustain the reality of the concept, every feeling authentic and every line arising spontaneously.

Schulze’s bearded and disheveled Bernard is like some Pan of academia — expansive, jubilant and completely natural. The blessed-out vibe he radiates is persuasive and extraordinary. Bruce’s intense Ellen creates the perfect contrast, so tightly wound she could explode at any moment. For reasons we soon come to understand, she’s all frustration and fury, both defensive and accusing.

As Sturdivant’s involvement entails some surprises, let’s just say that he nails an offbeat role with hysterical aplomb.

There is an exhilaration that true inspiration brings — and that’s exactly the high delivered by There Is a Happiness That Morning Is.