Though I didn’t know it was the theme of the show I was about to see, I found myself thinking about happiness as I biked up to Northeast Minneapolis on Friday night. I was in a grumpy mood, and I didn’t know why. It was summertime, the sun was out, I was going to see a play at one of my favorite venues, and the rest of the weekend promised events including Rock the Garden and a family dinner. What was my problem?
It was an unanswerable question—happiness is elusive. That mystery was at the core of RMS Duchess of York, a charming little show that played for one night only in a very site-specific installation at Paper Moose Jumpsuit & Co. The play began with Christopher Allen dragging a steamer trunk up the outdoor stairway leading to the space, and turned into a sort of museum of wonders: audience members were issued paper hats bearing superlatives, were seated in a dining room under a canopy, were taught how to draw cats, were lectured on happiness by a man sitting in a cage (Nick Stocks, punishing himself for failing at his happiness regimen), and ultimately were led to an encounter with a mysterious sea siren (a wistful Carly Wicks, playing against type).
The piece, co-creator/co-star Savannah Reich told City Pages, was inspired by the forced merriment and canned happiness found on cruise ships and in other commercial pleasuredromes. The show, though, was only peripherally a satire: rather, it was a substitution of one form of pleasure for another. Instead of the closed-ended entertainments to be found on cruises and in casinos, Duchess found happiness in wonder and curiosity, in ceaseless creativity and simple human connection. The show reminded me of Bob Dylan’s “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”:
You need something to open your eyes
You need something to make it known
That it’s you and no one else that owns
That spot that yer standing, that space that you’re sitting […]
No you can’t find it in no night club or no yacht club
And it ain’t in the seats of a supper club
And sure as hell you’re bound to tell
That no matter how hard you rub
You just ain’t a-gonna find it on yer ticket stub.
Of course, there are plenty who do find happiness in yacht clubs and supper clubs, and those people are welcome to them. As for Bob Dylan, maybe he just wasn’t holding the right ticket stub.