Russ Hunt's Reviews

Happy City
by Len Falkenstein

Theatre Free Radical / Notable Acts Theatre Festival
August / September 2002

There's a wonderful monologue near the beginning of Happy City, Len Falkenstein's new play (presented as part of the Notable Acts Summer Theatre Festival, at the Black Box), where Ambrose, a character who is inexplicably wandering about with what look rather like split open quart metal juice cans around his arms and across his shoulders and wearing a wonderful floppy hat, recounts arriving in the city for the first time, coming in on the train, underground and thus seeing nothing until rising up out of the station into a square of light between buildings. Never having seen a city before, he walks for miles of unending streets, wondering, as evening approaches and lights come on in windows, how people live in the city. Noticing people sleeping on heating grates and in doorways, he concludes, reasonably, that this is how they do it.

The confrontation of naive optimism and inexorable urban decay and catastrophe that we feel in the speech is a kind of ground note of the play, which is, as its title suggests, organized around the unanswerable question which people keep asking anyway: what would it take to make the city happy?

Like Falkenstein's earlier Manifesto, Happy City is a powerfully imagined series of fragmentary, intercut, not exactly chronological scenes organized around important ideas and almost incidentally bringing us some memorable (and strongly acted and presented) characters and relationships. Perhaps the most striking -- and skilfully acted by Devin Luke -- is Raj, a blithely confident urban planner who opens the play by explaining, against appropriate back-projections, how a city is an organism, dedicated to making all parts of itself happy, and outlining how we can "save" the now-decrepit part of the play's metropolis by destroying the slums and rebuilding a fantasy urban landscape in which a multicultural population relives a nostalgic image of what urban life should be. Almost instantly, however, Raj reappears as a disheveled, twitching wreck, apologizing for mistakes that have been made (and, we eventually learn, dying of some variant of Creuzfeld-Jacob's disease). In one sense the rest of the play can be seen as an explanation of what happened between the first and second appearances.

But that's only one thing the rest of the play might be seen as. It also introduces three other characters, each almost equally memorable. There's Marie-Celeste, his wife (precisely and energetically acted by Marissa Robinson), who works in PR for a pharmaceutical company, advertising drugs to make you happy -- but who refuses to take her own medication, preferring instead to face her own problems unaided by chemicals. Her problems include her inability to connect with her husband, safely insulated within his own ideas about the city which she increasingly (and, through the play, dramatically) begins to see as a far more complicated and difficult problem. The play can also be seen as her attempt to escape her husband and confront that larger reality -- complicated by the fact that she's rather a long way from stable. We catch glimpses of her racing barefoot through the slums in a conscious allusion to Maria, leading the Christian Workers' movement in Fritz Lang's monumental film Metropolis, organizing an imaginary protest movement to take back the expressway which -- we come to understand -- is the real reason for the various "urban redevelopment" plans.

At one point she is saved from being run down by a truck on the expressway by the third of the play's memorable characters, Ambrose, whose story of arrival in the city we've already heard. Ambrose has become director of the city's water supply, but lives in a cave and spends his nights gathering up the dead birds who have flown into the skyscraper windows overhead. Josef Addleman gives Ambrose -- who, paradoxically, is the voice of reason in the play -- a wonderful rural Canadian accent and presence. "It's not much, eh? But you do what you can," he says. His dream fantasy of becoming the urban superhero -- complete with body armor and springloaded knees for walking on concrete -- is a wonderful contrast to Maria-Calixta, who lives a delusion of the urban superhero through the whole play.

Sarah Jeffries (who was one of the two elegant and powerful singers in Theatre St. Thomas' Caucasian Chalk Circle) portrays the slinky, black-suited self-described cyborg (complete with eyepiece and keyboard on her forearm (permanently jacked into the Web, she says, reminding us of a William Gibson character) with an easy, magnetic physicality -- especially during the opening exposition, during which she acts as a kind of physical chorus for some of the other characters' descriptions of life in the city.

All this sounds fragmented, and the plot, such as it is -- Raj pursuing his wife, who participates in fomenting an urban riot which burns down the slum destined for "renewal" and eventually embraces an oncoming passenger train as a symbol of the city's joy -- isn't the sort of thing designed to make an audience comfortable with a neat exploration of a theme. But in part because of the structure of the production, all of it feels intensely coherent, a collection of fragments all focusing on one experience. There's not a wasted moment: one scene succeeds another without hesitation, orchestrated tightly and cohesively. The lighting design -- no one was credited in the program, but I suspect it was John Barlow, also responsible for the simple and efficient set -- uses overhead spotlights (often straight down on characters, outlining a brilliant box on the floor around them as they speak and creating stark shadows across their faces), and sometimes subtle and sometimes striking changes to help us focus on what we need to see and black out what we don't.

The set is essentially a floor-level back-projection screen, against which everything else happens. Sometimes it's used to show photographs or diagrams related as illustrations to a lecture or explanation, sometimes it shows us the titles of sections of the play: "Organism," for instance, is the first, introducing Raj's urban renewal lecture about the happy organic unity of the city; later, we get titles like "Diagnosis (1)" or "Mistakes (3)" as Raj outlines yet another collapsed plan ("Sixteen foot walls with razor wire at the top, that's what we should have done. It's the only thing you can do with people like this"). Sometimes it's used as a scrim to give us silhouetted dumb shows -- for instance, people dancing in that urban street life fantasy so dear to all of us (remember, as the play reminds us, Singing in the Rain -- or even West Side Story).

A central element of the production is the percussion kit and the "Junkyard Percussionist," Matt Tabor, who uses a collection of various kinds of urban junk and a couple of drumsticks to shape and support the structure of the play, beginning with an extended solo as the play begins, moving us into the strange mindscape of the play's world, and then supporting and punctuating the dialogue.

But the real strength of the play is the tightly structured, recursive and allusive language and imagery. There are a number of central images and ideas that recur through the script -- most notably, for me, the connection between Raj's presentation of the city as an organism and the fact that he has contracted, and is dying of, a variant of Creuzfeld-Jacob's disease, which he explains involves mutant microorganisms, prions, cutting the brain into isolated segments -- exactly as expressways and urban renewal do to cities. Other themes involve the recurrent allusions to Metropolis, the idea of superheroes, the city as anthill, and a wonderful recurrent allusion to potato fields and graveyards. "You take my point, eh?" Ambrose says as he, Maria-Calixta and the dying Raj wait out the riot in a graveyard. "What use is a graveyard?" Indeed, the final "urban renewal" proposal involves digging up the expressway asphalt and planting potatoes -- including, in the middle of the potato field, a grave for the martyred Marie-Celeste. We're reminded of Ambrose's earlier remark about going to funerals: "It kinda restores your faith in humanity -- which I need to have restored on a fairly regular basis."

What all this amounts to isn't so much a tract about urban renewal and life in the city as an exploration of dramatic conventions. But it's the furthest thing from an academic demonstration: as live theatre, it's dramatic, affecting, funny, and mesmerizing. Falkenstein and company are taking their show on the road -- to London, Ontario and Halifax for fringe festivals -- and plan to continue working on its shape before bringing it back to the Box in the fall. I presume it'll be improved by then, but in my view it doesn't need a lot of improvement. It's a wonderful keystone to the arch of the NotaBle Acts festival.

Notes on a second performance

After touring to Winnipeg and Halifax, Theatre Free Radical brought Happy City back to the Black Box for three performances in September. A number of people had responded to my first review by wondering why I hadn't mentioned how large a proportion of the script was monologues (something I usually object to), and whether I didn't agree that the late scene in the play when Raj, Ambrose and Maria-Calixta sit in the graveyard drinking and watching the riots simply runs too long. I went back to the first night looking especially for those issues.

What I saw was tighter, more focused production: all the power of the earlier performance was there, but more disciplined: lighting and backprojection cues were more precise, Josef Addleman's Ambrose was clearer and more focused as a rustic-sounding down-home voice of, well, reason; Sarah Jeffries' Maria-Calixta was even more abrupt, energetic, and physical (she moved more like a particularly high-energy cyborg); Marissa Robertson's Marie-Celeste was more sympathetic, and the ironic tension of her life (torn between selling the tranquilizing drugs, needing them, and knowing they don't work; torn between Raj's view of the city and her own knowledge of it) was much clearer; and Devin Luke's Raj was, if anything, even more thorough in his instant transformations from confident pitchman for urban renewal and decrepit, twitching failure. Falkenstein himself took over the role of Junkyard Percussionist, effectively punctuating the dialogue and creating atmosphere.

As I watched I tried to figure out why I didn't object to the monologues (a pretty high proportion of the play, after all, is delivered by one character to nobody in particular, or as part of what seems to be a public lecture). I'm not sure why, but it turns out that I didn't find it a problem this time, either. Some if it has to do with the variation between the style and context of the monologues: some are delivered to us, some are more like soliloquies, some are embedded in the action and are presumed to be delivered to other characters -- and some, like a couple of the exchanges between Raj and Marie-Celeste, are actually dialogue delivered as though it were monologue, with the characters speaking to each other but facing in quite different directions. All this seemed to combine with the fact that I was more consistently aware this time of the thematic density of the script, the way allusions (especially to Metropolis, but a number of other thematic elements had the same sort of structural effect), to make the monologues much less obvious or distracting than I would usually find them.

On the other hand, on a second viewing it became clearer that the graveyard scene is too long. Too much exposition is packed into one scene -- especially when much of it is explicitly philosophical, and even more especially when the characters are drunk.

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