Are any of us truly happy? It seems like most of the time, we smile when we are sad, and try to have a positive attitude even when we are angry. In a way, happiness is a social construct. Such is the main idea of Nomadic Theatre’s Happy, written by Robert Caisley.
With a Pop Art–inspired set designed by Adam Bacigalupo (COL ’16), and 1960s classic rock radiating from the speakers, the show is hippie-dippy: rebellious but beautiful.
Directed by Alice Neave (COL ’16), the one-act show depicts a dapper college professor, Alfred (Greg Keiser, COL ’16), his equally perky entrepreneurial wife, Melinda (Cristina Ibarra, COL ’17), and their bizarre visit to Alfred’s friend Eduardo’s (Connor Canning, COL ’16) dinner party. Upon arriving at the apartment, however, Alfred meets Eva (Kate Ginna, COL ’18), a 22-year-old starving artist (she literally does not eat in the presence of company), who schemes her way into Alfred’s life, attacking all of his insecurities.
Neave states that one of the reasons she chose to direct the play is her love for “living room dramas with a twist.” Another aspect of her directorial vision is to see the true human nature behind characters, and to see their façade break down, as Eva attempts to do with Alfred. Her director’s note states that “We are at once drawn to and horrified by her (Eva’s) torment of Alfred as the play continues, and this inner conflict is, I think, where the real heart of the show lies.” The show has heart, but it is partially hidden behind malicious jokes and snide comments.
The four-member cast feels like a dysfunctional family. From the beginning, the audience senses that Eva is a live wire. She immediately tells Alfred many of her personal details, such as her brother’s suicide and her parole record, and later tells him that she views happy people as phony and devious. She consistently forgets everything that Alfred tells her in order to irritate him and unmask his true emotions, which he is able to resist for a time. Both Eva and Eduardo do not appear to care enough to remember Melinda’s real name, instead calling her Belinda or not saying her name at all. From Eva’s black sheep to Eduardo’s chip-on-his-shoulder persona to Alfred and Melinda’s cheery, mainstream Americanness, the two couples are polar opposites.
Eva’s teasing becomes aggravated when Melinda, the polar opposite of Eva arrives. While Eva is young, cynical, and alternative, Melinda is optimistic, mainstream, and settled in her life. The two women clash when talking about their love lives, and in their own personal beliefs. Eva is wild and has had a tumultuous time in love, while Melinda has been with only Alfred for 14 years after meeting him in college. Ibarra’s Melinda is freakishly calm and collected, able to diffuse a stressful situation by merely closing her eyes, opening them, and repeating the action until she is relaxed. Her nonchalance seems juvenile, almost capricious-the antithesis of Eva’s jaded outlook.
And then there’s Eduardo. The attempted peacekeeper of the show, Canning delivers a fantastic performance, both innocent and world-weary. Eduardo knows why Eva behaves as she does, but also wants to pacify Alfred and Melinda, welcoming them into his home. Perhaps even more enigmatic than Alfred or Melinda, Eduardo addresses his feelings while simultaneously trying to match the energy of his guests. Canning’s repression and calming personality show his conflict between wanting to love Eva while also entertaining his friend of 14 years.
Ginna steals the show, resembling a little girl lost in a mainstream world. Eva still seeks her dream of becoming an artistic genius and does not want to become complacent in a humdrum life like Melinda and Alfred. Her brazen tone and fast-talking, cynical attitude help her alienate herself from every other character. She emits an aura of being too cool to do anything normally, like eat in the daylight or welcome guests to her apartment. Keiser’s staunch impassiveness also shines, as he has to endure her jokes with a straight face.
Adding to the sarcastically chipper tone is the lighting, designed by Lucy Slevin (COL ’18). Besides an industrialized, bright tone, Slevin says, “It is a slow build-up of intensity as the characters unravel, while the spotlights for the statues also intensify throughout the show. The end is bright and almost uncomfortable, just like the show ending.” She wanted the lights to reflect the emotional roller coaster of the show, bright and almost blinding throughout.
Every designer did a fantastic job, from the flattering and normal costumes to the realistic and understated hair and makeup, to the pre- and post-show folksy sounds. Producer Velani Dibba (SFS ’17) succeed in forming a production staff that felt supported, comfortable, and welcome, and using them to make theatrical magic.
Happy does not want you to feel comfortable throughout the show. In accordance with Nomadic’s mission to bring “contemporary, socially engaged, thought-provoking theater” to the Hilltop, Happy keeps you on the edge of your seat, cringing during awkward memories, and sympathizing with the characters. Happy feels like an audience-mandated experience. With a reverse-thrust stage that surrounds the audience, and Eva’s artworks on the two peninsulas, one can fully participate in the show. Just seeing the show seems like an act of rebellion, with spray-painted Mona Lisas and stenciled spray-paint decorating what would be industrial cement walls.
In Respect for Acting, Uta Hagen references the ideas of emotional and sense memory, in which actors must recall how they felt in order to depict an emotion on stage. The character of Eva is basically emotional and sense memory personified, using her words to manipulate Alfred’s seemingly nuclear life.
The show is meant to keep you on your toes and to force you to reevaluate your own life. In a way, we are all Alfred and Melinda, but we all are also Eva. We see the falsity of positivity, but still forge on in order to find something more, and avoid complacency.