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Happy As Larry

Sydney Festival 2010 present HAPPY AS LARRY, Shaun Parker & Company at the Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney.

Like, but, unlike Michael Keegan-Dolan of Fabulous Beast who brought us GISELLE, Shaun Parker is credited as Director (as is Mr Keegan-Dolan) and then, Choreographer (not claimed by Keegan-Dolan). However it seemed to me that both these artists begin their work in a similar way. Select collaborators and from their uniqueness, their (gifts) develop a work from their range of possibilities and skills, predicated by the Director’s idea or “dream”. In the case of Mr Keegan-Dolan, this Festival, Giselle; in the case of Mr Parker, this Festival, Happiness.

The mixed company of what Mr Parker calls in the program: Performers/Devisers: Matt Cornell, Dean Cross, Ghenoa Gela, Josh Mu, Marnie Palomares, Harriet Ritchie, Miranda Wheen, Paul White and Lee Wilson and not: Dancers, is reflected in the observable (i.e. to the untrained eye [mine]) wide variety of physical shapes and types that we see in the line up of the Performers across the stage, and then during the performance itself, we see a unique physical quality of each of the Devisers mixed with a common ease of unified movement of great competency when required from them all. From the super human and super beauty of Paul White, a known dancer of memorable work over the past few years to a roller skater. It is this visual aesthetic of people, that, mostly, look just like us (dress like us) and yet do and create extraordinary “physical stuff” and interest, that we ordinary people can’t do, that Mr Parker utilises, and is a fairly interesting constant in the work (THIS SHOW IS ABOUT PEOPLE- 2007) and maybe the initial magic ingredient that draws one into the experience.

HAPPY AS LARRY is certainly the work of Mr Parker’s that I have most enjoyed.

On the black, well lit stage (Lighting Designer: Luiz Pampolha) a large rectangle of a black shape, which we later observe as moveable and pivotal, and the home for the performers for most of the show, is being chalked by a figure with naïve drawings, beneath arches of multi-coloured balloons (Set Design: Adam Gardnir). After the auditorium lighting dims a figure of a young girl comes and stands at the opposite end of the chalker and begins a gradual simple laugh that over five or so minutes escalates into a seductive, infectious invitation to join her in the expression of ‘content’, maybe, ‘happiness’. Then the Music score begins (Composers : Nick Wales and Bree Van Reyk), and the performers arrive and in a series of duos, trios etc and ensembles over 70 odd minutes, reveal a series of interactions in the living and/or pursuit of happiness.

In the program, Shaun Parker talks “About the Process” where he confesses to “thoughts of happiness” and that he “had become startlingly aware that people around (him) were perplexed by the elusive nature of happiness and its possibilities.” Which resulted in the question “Do we know how to be happy anymore?” Mr Parker talks of the integration of the basic Enneagram system of personality with modern psychological knowledge as espoused by Oscar Ichazo and Claudio Naranjo as the “spring-board for (their) investigation into the concept of happiness.” Nine personality types are described; The Perfectionist, the Seducer, the Performer, the Tragic Romantic, The Observer, the Devil’s Advocate, the Optimist, the Boss and the Mediator. These investigations around these types being the beginning of the devising for the project. Little of the clarity of definition of the Enneagram types remain in the work. (Not that it matters.) The Dramaturg on this project, Veronica Neave in her program note says: “ Happiness is our most singular human pursuit. It is seemingly so conditional, randomly regulated by external influences. Through the theatrical glasses of objectivity we see how absurd, futile, complex and perplexing our efforts are to hold onto something that is so elusive yet is as available to us as air.” This, for me, melancholic note of the human condition, is the feeling that one takes away from the performance. That happiness is elusive and just like Voltaire’s hero Candide we are all in a futile striving for happiness in what we must convince ourselves “the best of all possible worlds” and more or less fail to achieve. That the striving for it is the thing. The celebration of the ‘failing’ journeys/pursuits of each of these characters is what gives us optimism over a general melancholic situation. The pursuit is all.

Watching the episodes that Mr Parker and his Performers have selected is an easy task of wonder and appreciation. The individual gifts of the Performers are mesmerizing and individual enough to keep one delighted and then the subsuming of the eccentricities for the choreographing of ensemble energies of ‘dance’ are expert enough to be exhilarating. The work has a feel of a refreshing dousing of cool water on a hot and humid day. You leave, the theatre feeling optimistic, despite the difficulty, that we can be happy as Larry, at least for a time. Mr Parker acknowledges “As in all my works, the performers, composers, designers, dramaturg and creative producer are fundamental to the creation of the final production, their creative minds driving the vision alongside my own.”

The Design elements serve the project well. The most powerful and beautiful contribution, other than the performers, seemed to me the remarkable composition of Nic Wales and Bree Van Reyk. Crossing from sometimes the basic “plink plonk” of rhythmic based electronica to violin solos and embodied “sweeping” orchestral arrangements, this score is immersive in its contact with and propulsion of the experience for the performers and audience alike. The contribution of this score was illustrated for me vividly in one of the later sequences, where a basketball is spun on the finger of one of the devisers for quite a considerable time. In itself a little boring after the wonder of the skill wears off, but because of the beautiful depth of the musical accompaniment began to translate into a “spacey” cosmic episode, that became dimensionally emotionally moving. [I felt good while watching it- elated.] Like all good soundtracks the music composition or design effects are, in the theatre, for me, the most powerful unifying element of a production (sometimes it is a conscious experience, others it is unconscious, necessarily.). This score approached an ideal of interaction, support and leadership to the whole of the theatrical experience in the theatre. Some congratulations must go to the Sound Consultant, Kevin Davidson, for this was one of the most felicitous sound experiences I have had in the theatre for some time. (The Soundtrack album is available through Sandcastle/iTunes.)

Jill Sykes in the Sydney Morning Herald, reviewing HAPPY AS LARRY at Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, where it had its World Premiere, wrote that the work was maybe too long and could still be edited. It seems some of that process had occurred before the Seymour season, but still even more could go, I reckon. It felt a little too long and just didn’t know how to end. But it is a fillip of happiness underlined by a human sense of the melancholic futility of it all. Happiness still worth pursuing in what is for us the best of possible worlds: a Sydney summer.

PS: Other than Paul White I was not able to identify individual performers. I would have liked too. But the program had no photograph or biographical information, so they remain invisible and incognito, other than to the cognoscenti. Shame in this case as much to admire individually.

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NB: These programs are not the only inadequate programs. And at least they are free. Unless you can afford the $10 for the STC shows, [$12 for the more “elaborate” programs of the Festival – dramaturgically, generally, poor in comparison to the London experience] and many people can’t and won’t pay it, the artists remain virtually unknown, unless you gather around the poster on the wall in the foyer. You and a couple of hundred as you exit!!!!! Surely a handout on each seat or for the interested as they enter, would be useful? Why the actor’s Agents or Union have not insisted that at least program recognition was given to their artists in this hand out form, when the artists are generally undercompensated for their craft and passion I can’t understand!(?) And I mean for all the CREATIVES not just the ACTOR/PERFORMER.

In London the programs at the National are 3 pound each, in Australian terms, approx $6. SIX DOLLARS, not TEN or TWELVE. They are chock a block with biog and photographs and illuminating articles and essays supporting the appreciation of the performance. Someone should take dramaturgical responsibility for the $10 STC program to justify the audience’s purchase. Belvoir leaves the STC program policy for dead. The Opera and Ballet are overpriced at $15. (Of course, who knows what the House is taxing that service to the public. The ushers selling the programs are as probably as overburdened as those who are in the Box Office, as I am still being asked to pay FIVE DOLLARS on top of the ticket price to attend the Sydney Opera House programs despite the fact that it is me, present, at the box office with cash in hand!!!!!!!!