Play in verse ‘There Is A Happiness That Morning Is’ masterfully presented

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Mirrorbox Theatre presents:
There Is A Happiness That Morning Is

CSPS Legion Arts — Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 1-3 at 7:30 p.m.

Angie Toomsen in ‘There Is A Happiness That Morning Is.’ — Greg Billman/Mirrorbox Theatre

There Is A Happiness That Morning Is by Mickle Maher runs a limited engagement at CSPS this weekend, and you should take time to see this amusing and startling play. Directed by Cavan Hallman of Mirrorbox Theater, the three-actor ensemble masterfully presents a story of love, moments of desperation and questions about reality.

The day after Bernard (Matthew James) and Ellen (Angie Toomsen) are caught making passionate love on the college green, they are informed they must apologize publicly for their display or face termination. They both then endeavor to teach their last lectures on William Blake’s poetry. While the play is presented almost entirely in verse; both James and Toomsen handle the lines so deftly that rather than being intimidated by the rhymes, the audience is alternately enchanted and then shaken up when an f-bomb is dropped into the middle of the verses.

The play’s thoughtful staging by Hallman in the black box at CSPS has the audience as the students in the lectures. There is light interplay between the characters and the audience, and as we watch the unraveling and re-raveling of Bernard and Ellen’s relationship, we can’t help but feel just as hapless students might feel if they witnessed such lectures on their campus. The minimalist lighting scheme by Jim Vogt reinforces the feel of a college lecture hall. The music and stage managing (Emmy Palmersheim and Jamie Hein, respectively) support the mood of the play throughout the 90-minute production.

The play opens when Bernard takes the stage, lecturing on the ecstasy that is Blake’s poem “Infant Joy” from Songs of Innocence; Ellen’s final class centers on “The Sick Rose” from Songs of Experience. Both characters spend the bulk of the the play connecting the poems to their lives and their 20-year long relationship. As Blake intended, the poems seem to be taught in tandem as foils to each other, just as these two characters serve as foils.

Matthew James in ‘There Is A Happiness That Morning Is.’ — Greg Billman/Mirrorbox Theatre

When Bernard enters and presents his first lines, I was uncertain if he was lecturing while on a whimsical acid trip or if the character was simply enamoured both of Ellen and the poetry he referenced. He ecstatically proclaims, “Love makes all the difference!” James maintains the energy of the character throughout the play; and, as events unfold, James enacts Bernard’s increasing desperation with a realistic bend.

In contrast, Toomsen’s first lines are scholarly and serious. As Ellen, Toomsen approaches her last lecture with a practical albeit disgusted-with-academia-and-life attitude. In sharp contrast with Bernard, Ellen notes, “desperation is easy to confuse with love.” As an audience member/student, I sat up a bit straighter when Toomsen took the podium and felt a bit more relaxed when James was talking. At the same time, I was wondering why on earth there are two such different Blake lecturers at a small liberal arts college. (Hint: you learn the answer by the end of the play.)

The cast of ‘There Is A Happiness That Morning Is.’ — Greg Billman/Mirrorbox Theatre

Just as it seems Ellen and Bernard have wound down to the end of their lectures, careers and relationship, Dean, the president of the college, enters. Jason Alberty is outstanding in this role. Alberty delivers his own lecture of sorts that explains the contrasts and confusions that have arisen throughout the play. Additionally, Alberty handles a series of physical altercations (choreographed by K Michael Moore) seemingly effortlessly. Alberty’s range of emotion is astounding as he addresses at once Bernard, the past, Ellen, the audience and even the hopeful future for everyone involved. By the end, the play comes full circle, but we are left wondering what the future will be for these three characters whose lives are so intertwined.

There Is A Happiness That Morning Is, the final show in Mirrorbox Theatre’s inaugural season, runs just three performances at CSPS Legion Arts in Cedar Rapids, Nov. 1-3 at 7:30 p.m. each night. Tickets are $15.

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