According to James Lemon and Peter Barrell, a couple of “Happiness Crusaders” for HPL, the worldwide self-help conglomerate at the centre of Happiness™, the driving question of the millennium is: “Can you really affect personal change from the outside in?” and the answer is a resounding “yup!”
The performance uses both the Arts Court Studio and Theatre to great effect. The audience begins the Happiness™ experience in the Studio where a couple of chirpy, slightly wild-eyed acolytes lead guests on walking tours of the HPL line of products beginning “in exactly eleven seconds!” on the dot. Thank goodness there is a stop at the bar. A smooth, disembodied voice keeps assuring the crowd that the seminar will begin in five minutes.
When the two finally burst into the Studio it is in a frenzy of supremely confident self-help platitude-spouting glory, complete with a choreographed dance routine. Amid flickering screens relating Fun Facts and corporate history, they take testimonials from their converts and exhort the crowd to smile for the rest of their lives. It was fun but I must admit I was feeling a little anxious that the entire show would be one long Happiness™ seminar. Poking fun at self-help gimmicks and sales culture is like shooting fish in a barrel but as it turns out this is more of a framing device for the much more interesting story of two lost souls who desperately need to believe in the stupid crap they’re selling.
When we move into the theatre, it is about an hour before the seminar is set to begin and James and Peter are going through their pre-show routine; setting up the products and running lighting cues with Ted, their unseen stage manager. They work out their jitters and psyche each other up by complimenting each other’s haircuts, suits and top physical condition and they play a game at which they both excel: trying to sell each other ridiculous and/or useless objects.
As James and Peter practice their patter and dance routine, they move about on a pristine stage that with the help of excellent lighting is so white it seems almost to glow from beneath. The transparent, molded plastic and chrome touches serve to augment the sterility of the atmosphere. At one end of the stage a screen shows images of the product line. When the demonstrations start, the house lights go down and the two stand before the screen, rapt and reverent. The products are ridiculous enough to contribute to the surrealism, yet you have the nagging feeling similar things might be on the market somewhere.
James and Peter have the easy rapport of two people who’ve worked together for a while. When each in turn admits with studied casualness that neither expects any friends or family members to be in the crowd, it trips up their easy cheerful rhythm for a moment but they quickly gloss over this and go back to their preparations, only for things to really begin to fall apart during the dance rehearsal as it becomes apparent that each of them is struggling with their own demons and a gnawing sense of emptiness. Things turn dark as they come up with an unconventional (i.e. insane) plan to alleviate Peter’s not at all HPL worthy Unhappiness, while Ted (likely the happiest person in the room or in the general vicinity of the room anyway) looks on in a mixture of horror and fascination.
There are some truly hilarious moments in this piece, and though these are balanced with headier, deeper reflections, I found the writing was strongest during the satirical or darkly comic modes. Cory Thibert and Tony Adams do a fine job making the transition between these registers, and though some moments of dialogue approach the melodramatic, the performances are strong enough to make up for any slight awkwardness in a moment of dialogue. Overall, I was impressed with this opening night performance. I liked the concept, I thought the acting was strong, the set and lighting were fantastic and I loved the use of the two Arts Court spaces.