The Catastrophic Theatre: There Is a Happiness That Morning Is

“Art can never exist without naked beauty displayed.” — William Blake

Whoa, what’s with the weighty quote? Aren’t we here to talk about a play? And aren’t plays supposed to be the two hour distractions from things like poetry, and our ever-procrastinated efforts to read more of it? Maybe you read some William Blake in college and then forgot all about it. Maybe he was just a small chapter in one of those massive English Lit anthologies that you still keep tucked on your bookshelf; because you’ve been meaning to read it, really read it, for years now. The Catastrophic Theatre’s production of There Is a Happiness That Morning Is may be just the motivator you’ve been looking for.

Mickle Maher’s play is as masterful as they come, a simple story told in a genius style. While the majority of dialogue is delivered in rhymed verse, the script manages to avoid the old-fashioned bouncing rhymes that often invade a metered method. The lines of There Is a Happiness That Morning Is do not bounce. They ooze sophistication, wind complicated puns and set up stunning contrast for an occasional burst of modern profanity. Maher isn’t a rhyming poet, but a matchmaker who allows words to meet, woo, and sing harmony.

Ellen and Bernard are professors of Blake’s poetry and long-time lovers who recently expressed their passions in a very public way. Nothing says liberal arts like two educators howling and humping away in the middle of the student green, eh? As the play opens, the audience is immediately cast as the professor’s students, and we are offered two contrasting apologies from our professors. Bernard is contrite for his indiscretion, but blissful, as he walks his students through Blake’s Infant Joy, proclaiming “I happy am, Joy is my name…” while Ellen opts for a terse interpretation of The Sick Rose, and seems willing to apologize only for her years of bending to the intellectual constraints of her position at the university. The play concerns the ability of two people to see a single situation in very different ways, and the limitations set by false perceptions in love.

Sounds a bit heavy, doesn’t it? Don’t fret. There Is a Happiness That Morning Is also concerns an insane and formerly invisible university Dean, a flying metaphor in the form of a mud mat, and some of the most deliciously dirty one-liners you’ll ever encounter at the theatre. Even the most poetry illiterate audience member succumbs to snort laughing when Ellen reveals her ultimate conclusion concerning Blake’s work is that the poet was advising us all to just “f*** someone.” In short, while the contrast between Ellen and Bernard grows and eventually pushes their relationship to its breaking point, there are still more laughs than sighs created by their conflict on the whole.

Troy Schulze brilliantly portrays Bernard as the impassioned professor that worships his material, respects his students and appreciates his position. We all knew this professor. Some of us (eh-hem) may have crushed over this type of a professor. Every other line is emphasized by a furrowed brow or insistent arm movements as Schulze endears the audience to a genuinely enthusiastic character. Bernard just drips sincerity and hopefulness; he personifies Blake’s “talking baby.”

Amy Bruce weaves a complexity into the character of Ellen, utilizing a winning blend of sarcasm and sadness. You may recognize this professor from your college days as well, as the one who finally made you admit that you weren’t nearly as smart as you thought you were. With John Maddenesque madness on her blackboard, she scribbles across the sacred words of Blake, leading her students to entirely unexpected conclusions. Ms. Bruce’s instincts are dead on, as she presents a character evolving right before our eyes. Whenever the audience seems to have figured out just who Ellen is (a bitter victim of academic bureaucracy, or a snarky unrepentant, or a frightened lump-bearer), another layer is revealed and the character deepens. She manages to remain just outside the grasp of our and Bernard’s comprehensions, right up until the very end.

Before Bernard and Ellen can succumb to their various misunderstandings and admit relationship defeat, Kyle Sturdivant provides a welcome burst of hilarity with his performance as President Dean. His essential role in the professors’ relationship is revealed in a flurry of physical comedy that splits the metered rhyme of the play and eventually provides clarity. Sturdivant’s hysteria dominates the final moments of the play, as he begs the impossible of two members of academia: to please stop trying to give meaning to every little thing.

Director Jason Nodler (also the artistic director of Catastrophic) does the show a great service by presenting it in the intimate setting of the Catastrophic Theatre offices, instead of their usual performance location at Diverse Works. With less than fifty seats on slight risers, two podiums up front, and one beaten blackboard for the professors to scribble on, the audience is easily drawn into the illusion of a college classroom. Nodler’s bold choice of script and style in There Is a Happiness That Morning Is represents the latest success in an unbroken streak of solid productions at the Catastrophic Theatre.

Let’s just be honest with ourselves and collectively admit that we’ll probably never get around to dusting off those anthologies reading the complete works of Blake or Keats or… Seuss, even. But poetry is far from being obsolete, as many modern wordsmiths have simply found a new medium for their work. Modern poetry is as easily accessible as row 6, seat C.

“Apparently the world’s made mad by sex and poetry.” — Mickle Maher