Playwright: Mickle Maher. At: Theater Oobleck, Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph. Tickets: 312-742-8497; www.dcatheater.org; pay-what-you-can ($15 suggested). Runs through: May 22
Once more Theater Oobleck and playwright Mickle Maher have created a singular theater piece that's funny, witty, literate and profound. Inspired by mystical late-18th-century poet and artist William Blake, Maher has penned a work that explains poetry, analyzes particular poems of Blake's and also employs the poems as metaphors for the story of the play itself, which explores the nature of love and passion. Oh, did I mention that it's written in rhymed verse in homage to Blake?
The 90-minute play evolves from two short Blake poems, "Infant Joy" from Songs of Innocence and "The Sick Rose" from Songs of Experience. College professors Bernard and Ellen dissect the poems, speaking in poetic cadences brilliantly and humorously disguised as everyday speech. They also are lovers of 15 years who set their small college atwitter when they have sex outdoors on campus and are observed by the college president. The live sex act echoes recent real events at Northwestern University. If that's not intentional, then art indeed reflects life in sometimes-uncanny ways.
The most obvious interpretation of the play is that Bernard and "Infant Joy" represents the Dionysian impulse in humanity, while more-buttoned-up Ellen and "The Sick Rose" stand for the Apollonian impulse. A third character, "the invisible worm" of Blake's poem that is destroying the rose from within, is the college president. But his part in the storyas in the poemis not purposely destructive, for Blake calls it "his dark secret love." In Maher's extension of the poetic idea, the worm would rather live forever within the rose than destroy it. The president causes Bernard and especially Ellen to reconsider the nature of love.
Writing about There Is a Happiness That Morning Is makes it sound rather heavy and literary, but it never loses its comic edge or showmanship, culminating in an unexpected and gasp-inducing stage fight that's one of the best I've seen, as one actor whips another around like a rag doll.
The finesse of the show is surprising when one considers that Theater Oobleck works without a director, the company collectively staging each piece. Of course, having only three characters and simple design elements helps some but doesn't make a slam-dunk of this challenging piece. It's the actors who make it a slam-dunk. Oobleck veteran Colm O'Reilly is perfectly rumpled as Bernard, a man far more eager and passionate than smart. Diana Slickman as Ellen provides rueful and reserved counterpoint as the doubter of the couple. Kirk Anderson supplies a final, unexpected burst of energy as the college chief and hypotenuse of the triangle.
There Is a Happiness That Morning Is confirms again Theater Oobleck's reputation as one of the most creative and original troupes in town.