We are in darkness. A shatteringly loud gunshot explodes. The lights go up. There is a body under a cover, and a gruesome splattering of blood all over the room. Particularly disgusting: a huge splotch of gore on the refrigerator. Several people rush into the room. They are confused, then upset, then angry. Octogenarian Ella has, so to speak, jumped the gun. They had all agreed to die together so no one would have to go it alone. Thus begins happiness (and other reasons to die), Bob Bartlett’s new play and The Welders’ latest production at the Atlas.
Although the members of this suicide group made a most intimate commitment to each other, they’ve never met or talked, only communicating online, using monikers instead of their real names, purposely not divulging personal information. Add a backyard dog on his deathbed that somehow self-resuscitates and who also barks when he hears his name, (even whispered and correctly spelled), sudden creaky sounds, lights flickering at will, and a phonograph player that turns on by itself, and you’ve got a quirky little piece that unexpectedly grows on you.
happiness is extremely well acted, and energetically directed. Elan Zafir (as Jeb) leads the pack – with chiseled chin, quick stealthy moves, and perfect pitch delivery, he could just as easily be spouting dialogue from Mamet before heading out to commit a quick kill. Instead, his legs give out from under him periodically accompanied by a slight tremor hinting at more to come. Melissa Flaim is delightful as Misa, revealing just enough information about her character to appreciate her story, slowly letting down her guard to divulge her horrific secret at the climax of the play.
Carlos Saldana plays Emilio, an all around unapproachable character, stoically wounded, content to wallow in his pain alone. Who knows if he’s hit rock bottom in an unrelenting gloom of depression? But he doesn’t lift up out of it for a second, is the constant nay-sayer and seems totally incapable of seeing the light of day.
Two visitors round out the ensemble – Miyuki Williams gives her all as a medium tuned in to the spirit world, and Graham Pilato as Nolan, the replacement for the intended foursome, with enough ticks and insecurities to make you want to help him pull the plug, if not the trigger, to put him out of his misery.
The play’s premise is that the life force of people who come together, will spark enough energy to change the trajectory, even for an intended suicide pact, and Bartlett’s new script sets up interesting possibilities.
Aided by Gregg Henry’s’ creative direction, the script moves at a clipped pace reflecting on life’s tough breaks and the possibilities that even in the worst blizzard conditions in Duluth Minnesota, somehow hope can slip through the cracks and bring a reason to keep living. The only false note in Bartlett’s provocative and twisted developments is a note from deceased Ella tucked away and found a bit too conveniently near the end.
Lighting and sound directors, John D. Alexander and Kenny Neal respectively, bring otherworldly spooky elements to the scenes. Atlas’s intimate Lab Theatre II is filled to the gills with enough clutter to fill a lifetime (scenic design by Collin Ranney), truly reflecting a hoarder’s life fully if not peacefully lived.
One of the most creative touches is the connection to Bob Dylan throughout, culminating in jaw-dropping revelations at the end that will make you race to Google. Who knew?
happiness (and other reasons to die)
May 28 – June 13
The Welders at
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
1 hour, 45 minutes with no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
happiness takes you on an emotional roller coaster starting with that sudden shotgun blast and the chaos that follows: dealing with the defecated remains of a body sprawled on the floor, disgust with the filthy conditions, cleaning up the mess and getting to a better place, one step at a time. With each interchange the characters slowly realize they can open up and depend on each other for some semblance of support. Having already postponed commiting their “group finale” until after the Christmas Holidays, and then New Years, perhaps they’ll consider sticking around until at least the next day… and then maybe the next…
This is the third production developed via the “Welders” incubator group, a collective of five seasoned playwrights organized to support each others’ work, then rotate off to another five playwrights. It’s a smart, enterprising idea and merits attention and support, especially considering this latest creative offering of “happiness…”
happiness (and other reasons to die) by Bob Bartlett . dDirected by Gregg Henry . Featuring Melissa Flaim, Graham Pilato, Carlos Saldana, Miyuki Williams, and Elan Zafir. Set design: Collin Ranney . Lighting design: Jonathan Alexander. Costume design: Gail Beach . Sound design: Kenny Neal. Production manager: Rich Ching . Stage manager: Tre’ Wheeler . Produced by The Welders . Reviewed by Debbie Jackson.