At one point during the Thursday night preview of Live Action Set’s The Happy Show, audience members were encouraged (not told, just encouraged) to make our way to the big windowless room in the middle of Bedlam Theatre, where we would watch the sun set. It was unclear what direction we were meant to face, so I said to my friend Vanessa that we might as well face west. A man sitting on the adjacent square of artificial turf leaned over to me and whispered, shaking his head, “It’s not literal!” I don’t think he was a cast member, but I’m not sure. It’s that kind of show.
The Happy Show, directed by Ryan Underbakke and “created by the entire ensemble” (these days, what isn’t?), comes advertised as “an immersive experience,” a show that is “site-specific to the hilt.” There are 19 (we were told) different vignettes one might or might not see, and there is an element of choice to what you see and don’t see—though it’s not always clear what the choices are and when they are being made. For example, as one skit ended, a cast member whispered to me, “Do you like dogs?” Being more of a cat person, I said no, and she nodded and walked away. I saw the guys next to me saying yes, and being told that in that case they should stay where they were. But then everyone else in the room seemed to disappear through one door or another, and I wasn’t sure where I might go—which choices might lead to me actually seeing part of the show, and which choices might lead to me simply having a drink at Bedlam’s bar or standing alone in the parking lot. So I decided to change my mind about dogs, and stayed where I was. With a few companions, I heard a proclamation about dogs and was presented with the opportunity to pet an actual dog.
|the happy show, presented through may 15 at bedlam theatre. for tickets ($20-$25) and information, see bedlamtheatre.org.|
Other parts of the show are shared among the entire audience; among those are the show’s beginning, its conclusion, and a picnic dinner that takes place on the makeshift “lawn.” There’s a mildly interactive component to most of the vignettes I experienced, but the most effective parts of the show were of the good old-fashioned sit-your-ass-down-and-let-us-entertain-you variety: my favorites were a very polished Lord of the Rings skit (featuring Brant Miller in an Ivey-worthy performance as Samwise Gamgee) and the show-concluding dance of the gods.
The whole experience is fun, though the very deliberate calculation of its carefreeness is an elephant that the production futily tries to get the audience to ignore. There’s little room (at least, in the rooms I visited) for audience members to actually cast their cares to the wind: the show is about watching a group of very good, very confident actors pretending to cast their cares to the wind. By contrast, I appreciated the way the performers in The Thing—another unconventional, open-form, site-specific theatrical production—stuck their tongues out at you when you made eye contact with them. It made clear that they knew that you knew that they knew the whole show was under their tight control, and that honesty made a big difference.
That said, there are a lot of nice moments in The Happy Show: a human disco ball, a roomful of LED fireflies, a manly toast in “the beer room,” and surely many others that, by design, I had to miss. The people to whom I’d most strongly recommend The Happy Show are families with children: kids in the early elementary years (of whom there’s actually one in the cast) will enjoy the exploratory aspect of the show, and the dynamic, visual, wryly humorous sketches will surely engage them. Though it’s not “children’s theater,” The Happy Show is great theater for kids.
For the rest of us, it’s…well, nice. Even by Bedlam standards, this is theater off the beaten path, which I regard as a virtue in and of itself. “There wasn’t really a plot, was there?” I asked Vanessa as we drove away.
“Yeah, there was!” she reminded me. “We saved the world from being destroyed, remember?”
Oh, that’s right. We did. I’d forgotten about that.