“Pay attention!” You won’t hear that instruction when you take your seat for Mickle Maher’s play “There Is a Happiness That Morning Is,” running as part of FallFringe. Still, you’d be advised to keep your powers of concentration in gear for this erudite and talky comedy, whose professor characters confess, rant and rhapsodize in rhyming verse.
Staged here by WSC Avant Bard, Maher’s play chronicles the aftermath of a minor college scandal: Two William Blake scholars have been caught having sex outside, on the campus grounds. Ordered by the administration to apologize publicly, the intellectual Ellen (Lynn Sharp Spears) and the happy-go-lucky folk-singer-turned-academic Bernard (Brian Crane) respond in sharply different ways, exacerbating the crisis.
In director Jay Hardee’s streamlined production, a whiteboard and podium evoke the auditorium where Bernard and Ellen are teaching their classes the day after the tryst. As the professors deliver lectures that are part emotional confession and part insightful analysis of two short poems by Blake, we audience members effectively become stand-ins for the students.
Some theatergoers may remember, from English 101, that Blake’s works include “Songs of Innocence and of Experience,” which intended to illustrate, in Blake’s words, “two contrary states of the human soul.” Maher, a co-founder of Chicago’s Theater Oobleck (which originally produced this play), ingeniously builds on this literary footnote: As Bernard and Ellen launch into their self-criticism sessions, they become representatives of contrary worldviews.
Dressed in wrinkled grad-student clothes, which are still strewn with twigs following his night outdoors, Crane’s Bernard brims with quiet euphoria. He showers us with creased-eyed smiles and gestures excitedly with splayed fingers as he explains how his personal love affair sheds light on Blake’s poem “Infant Joy” (from “Songs of Innocence”). Spears’s Ellen, by contrast, is a cynic whose dour mood and flinty expression suit the poem “The Sick Rose” (also from “Songs of Experience”). She uses a projector to illustrate her lecture, while Bernard scribbles his poem on the whiteboard and adds a leafy doodle.
The two scholars, and their outlooks, eventually clash, and an appearance by the college’s president (Joe Palka, acting suitably doddering) escalates the conflict. But for the most part, “There Is a Happiness” seems content with elaborating its clever premise, and the lack of sustained dramatic development makes the 90-minute play feel a little airless. It’s fun to follow the verse, though, and Hardee’s actors do a nice job balancing the rhymes and the rhythms of everyday speech.
If “There Is a Happiness” is brainily artful, another FallFringe offering, Sheldon Scott’s one-man show “Shrimp & Griots,” directed by Nancy Camp, sticks to the straightforward side of the spectrum. A collection of vignettes — some bitter, some heartwarming — about a young boy growing up in South Carolina and coming to terms with his sexuality, the play unfurls as a storytelling session, with no set or props beyond a stool and a backdrop lit by a stick-figure projection.
Playwright-actor Scott, whose work has appeared in previous Fringe festivals, displays a keen eye for detail and a confident sense of tone: We see his protagonist tar a leaking mobile-home roof; hear him play music from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” on the tuba during a school talent contest; suffer with him as an uncle perpetrates a mean-spirited betrayal. Punctuated as it is by some avoidable pauses and clocking in at a mere 45 minutes, the piece still feels like a work in progress. This FallFringe airing likely will help Scott figure out where and how he needs to add material and calibrate pacing.
The FallFringe lineup also encompasses encore runs of some hits from the summer 2013 Capital Fringe Festival. Reprise engagements of Brynn Tucker’s “A Guide to Dancing Naked” and Nu Sass Productions’ “43 and ½: The Greatest Deaths of Shakespeare’s Tragedies” fall into this category. New productions on the schedule include Joseph Price’s “Operating System” (tag line: “What do you do when you hit your storage limit?”) and Avalanche Theatre Company’s colorfully titled “The Immortal Jellyfish.”
Wren is a freelance writer.
Through Nov. 17 at Fort Fringe, 607 New York Ave. NW. Tickets $20 (or $15
with a 2013 Fringe button).
or call 866-811-4111.