As you walk into the theater for There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, you are handed what looks like a school notebook, the kind with a stiff black-and-white-speckled cover. You take your seat before a long blackboard. A bearded fellow watches as you settle in, chiding the latecomers. He is Professor Bernard Barrow, and he's about to give a lecture on Blake that will certainly be unlike any lecture you've ever experienced. The evening before, Barrow and his colleague Ellen Barker — another Blake expert — were so overcome by the ecstasies the poet evokes that they made love naked beside a hedge on the quad and were discovered by the college president, as well as being seen by many others. They have been instructed to apologize to us — their students — or lose their jobs. Bernard's lecture, based on Blake's Songs of Innocence, proceeds immediately; Ellen's, which is related to Songs of Experience, will follow.
It wasn't a new love that overcame these two people on the quad. They've been in love for more than twenty years, since he was an undergraduate and she a fourth-year graduate student who took an interest in his career. But they have very different ideas about Blake, love and the meaning of their tryst — at least at this moment, since these things are always fluid. Bernard begins with a delirious exegesis of the poem "Infant Joy": "'I have no name:/I am but two days old.'/What shall I call thee?/ I happy am." For Blake, joy and transcendence were metaphysically linked, and the poet and his wife sometimes sat naked together in their garden, re-creating the innocence of Eden.
This play, by author Mickle Maher, is written in verse — rhymed couplets, for the most part, as far as I could tell — but the writing is so varied and expressive and the phrasing of actors Jeremy Make and Amanda Berg Wilson so full-bodied and convincing that the dialogue just feels like the heartfelt outpourings of passionate people, even if the language is heightened and poetical. Maher is clearly intoxicated with words, and you do have to listen closely, but the play isn't pretentious or difficult, and the overall impact is intoxicating.
Ellen's mood is far grimmer than Bernard's. He believes their shining passion lifts them above worldly concerns; she has a concern on her mind too pressing to be dissipated by lovemaking. Her text, from Songs of Experience, is "The Sick Rose": "O rose, thou art sick!/ The invisible worm/ That flies in the night/In the howling storm/Has found out thy bed/Of crimson joy/And his dark secret love/Does thy life destroy." Her interpretation is furiously logical, and it takes her only a few angry minutes to deconstruct poor Bernard's "I happy am," so that those of us who've been happily tranced by his words suddenly feel a bit silly, as if we'd found ourselves moved to tears by a Hallmark card. Bernard believes sexual congress is holy; Ellen sees Blake's message as "Fuck someone. Fuck someone hard."
Three more things you might want to know before seeing this delicious play:
There's a surprise visit toward the end that puts everything in a new light. It's very funny and a touch deflating.
Maher gets in some great digs at the state of academia, digs I know my colleagues in the writing program at the University of Colorado will appreciate. And the surprise visitor, played by a lively and astonishingly limber Jim Walker, happens to be one of those colleagues.
Finally, keep that invisible worm in mind, and also the Garden of Eden and the snake.
Catamounts artistic director Berg Wilson used to run a company in Chicago, and Maher — along with other interesting playwrights whose work the company has staged — is a Chicago playwright. Most of the new work we see around here comes from New York, and the Chicago sensibility seems different. It has a jazziness and openness to experiment, a kind of lightness of spirit combined with real — but unsentimental — feeling. The Catamount pieces we've seen so far have been pretty representational, but — perhaps paradoxically — Make and Berg Wilson, in a pair of fine performances, give this artful play a far-from-representational emotional and intellectual richness.