Stay in the Loop
BSR publishes on a weekly schedule, with an email newsletter every Wednesday and Thursday morning. There’s no paywall, and subscribing is always free.
Even before The Happiness Lecture begins, Lee Ann Etzold as a “representative of the development office and a dramaturg” calls on the audience to point out wealthy theatergoers on the verge of death so Philadelphia Theatre Company’s capital campaign can succeed. The stunned silence gives way to giggles and the performance begins.
Bill Irwin frames his subsequent 85-minute adventure as an academic lecture on the concept of “Happiness.” But before he can get his speech started, eight plainly visible “invisible helpers,” in black from head to toe, take charge. Irwin hilariously keeps trying to gain or regain control in order to deliver his important lecture. Successful in the end, Irwin and company stage a finale— a comical “spaghetti song” that had much of the audience in convulsions.
Irwin’s inspiration for The Happiness Lecture came to him one sleepless night when he read a piece on happiness by John Lanchester in the New Yorker. From master classes and workshops, Irwin pulled together an ensemble of actors and dancers. Not every scene is comical: The bodies pile up during a stylized warrior attack that shocks, then the show returns to the absurdly funny. Happiness pays homage to the creativity of past clowns— Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Marcel Marceau, Buster Keaston, and Lou Jacob— as well as Slava Polunin, the Russian who has been called “the best clown in the world.” The tradition of Asian theater (the invisible stage managers) is fused with puppetry and slapstick, and the performers make use of all available space– the stage, backstage, the aisles, audience seating and balcony.
Irwin happily shares the spotlight with some of Philadelphia’s best performers: dancer and actress Nichole Canuso, Jennifer Childs wearing clown white and a big red nose, dancer Melanie Cotton, puppet master Aaron Cromie, performance actress Lee Ann Etzold, swing dancer Dawn Falato and sword dancer Makoto Hirano. Completing the company are break dancing Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie and dancer and choreographer Cori Olinghouse. Nancy Harrington is collaborator and production stage manager.
To read a response, click here.
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.
Sign up for our newsletter
All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.