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STREAMING THEATER REVIEW The Happiest Place on Earth
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2020-05-21

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Playwright: Philip Dawkins

At: Sideshow Theatre online. Tickets: SideshowTheatre.org; $5+ ( pay what you can ). Runs through: Open run

Playwright Philip Dawkins' many successful works—among them, Charm, Le Switch, Failure: A Love Story and The Homosexuals—are diverse in style and subject but display his characteristic wit, insight and effective use of comedy. The Happiest Place on Earth is no exception. It bears his customary hallmarks while also embracing a new form for Dawkins: an autobiographical one-person show, performed by Dawkins himself in this 2016 staging.

It's a meditation on the nature of happiness that ends with Dawkins—only 35 when he wrote the play—confessing that he has not been happy "for a very long time." He questions the sustainability of happiness and knows that "No one lives happily ever after."

But The Happiest Place on Earth isn't about Dawkins. It's about his mother, her three sisters and his grandmother and their trip to Disneyland on Christmas Day, 1963. Grandma was just 36 and an unexpected widow with four young daughters. The holiday trip was intended as a healing journey after the sudden death of their young father/husband.

Now, Dawkins is far too skillful to make this 90-minute piece gloomy or somber. He recognizes that Walt Disney and Disneyland are icons of popular culture, and that the "Magic Kingdom" is promoted as "the happiest place on earth." Thus, his family's grief ironically comes face to face with unalloyed happiness.

Early on, Dawkins acknowledges the phony, manufactured, controlled happiness Disneyland delivers, but then he goes deeper. "What is happiness inside the park," he observes, "is more like madness outside it," invoking the detachment from reality of Fantasyland, the celebration of racist gun violence of Frontierland, the white, middle-class House of Tomorrow of Tomorrowland and the forced 1910 nostalgia of Main Street USA.

But The Happiest Place on Earth isn't really about Disneyland, either; it's only a metaphor. This play is about family, young children, loss, parenting and inheritance—not of property but of family narrative. Dawkins' inheritance of family stories is how he enters the narrative himself.

Skillfully and invisibly directed by Jonathan L. Green, Dawkins performs with charm in a classroom setting with a teacher's desk and overhead projector, used to show a Disneyland map and family photos. The video quality is good, except the stage lighting tends to wash out the projections, and the sound—recorded by a camera microphone—may require adjustment for clarity. I upped the treble and lowered the bass.

The Happiest Place on Earth reveals one family's wounds. Almost every family has some wound or other, so the truth and compassion of this work are apparent. The Declaration of Independence promises "the pursuit of happiness" but not its attainment, and part of growing up is understanding the difference. This lovely little play is about that.


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