By Justin Hayford
If actors are people who lie to you, as Aardvark theater insisted in a show last year, then the four performers who make up Lucky Pierre are the worst actors on the planet. In their new piece, Happiness, they seem incapable of lying, pretending, or concealing anything.
They are present in their tiny studio performance space as the audience gathers, tying their shoes, checking their props, offering wine to their guests. Once the piece starts (which seems to happen almost as an afterthought), they don’t adopt personae or don costumes in an attempt to transport us to a fictional land or a distant time. Rather, they clip themselves to straps screwed into the rafters and simply dangle, staring patiently and smiling at friends in the audience, content to do nothing for a god-awful long time.
The performers do a lot of nothing in Happiness–flapping their arms in unison, staring upward while slowly looking from left to right and licking their lips, reading the program aloud–as they slouch toward profundity, changing horses in the middle of many streams, developing myriad themes to a point of maddening irresolution. Rather than delivering payoffs or making points, Lucky Pierre sneaks up behind your psyche, taps it on the shoulder, and then stares blankly when your psyche turns around and asks for the fifteenth time, “Yes?”
In other words, this is work as beguiling as it is demanding. For every moment of transcendent beauty there is a moment of frustrating opacity. And the performers never tip their hands. Right from the start, hanging from the ceiling in the middle of their windowless room, which is painted a surreal robin’s-egg blue from top to bottom, they seem at once committed and blase, as fond of precise gestures as empty pauses. The lavish Broadway-style overture that plays from a boom box one of them holds as he dangles only reinforces the complete lack of build in this opening “scene.” The performers are an uncrackable enigma, a crashing bore, a mischievous insult to theatrical good taste everywhere.
But most of all, they are disarmingly real, in a way that few performers can even approximate onstage. And for the next hour they remain so, often telling us what they’re doing as they do it (in fact, the first line of the piece, spoken after the four have been dangling for quite a while, is “This is four people hanging in a blue room”). Sometimes that self-referential impulse becomes redundant; making scenes about people saying what they’re doing in a piece that is fundamentally about people just doing what they’re doing is a bit like writing a sonnet about iambic pentameter. But throughout, the performers stand before us with utter candor, never covering their mistakes. They give themselves nothing to hide behind, hoping that their collective excavation of banality will produce something transcendent–perhaps even happiness.
Like the epic performance duo of Mathew Wilson and Eduardo Martinez-Almaral, the members of Lucky Pierre leave enough room in their carefully choreographed, tightly scripted pedestrian showcase for fate to intervene, and from the start it smiles upon them. As they dangle, swinging slightly back and forth, an ever-so-delicate creak echoes from the ceiling (reminiscent of the creaking gymnasium floor that provides such eloquent accompaniment to Goat Island’s similarly enigmatic pieces), offering the suspense that this suspended image merely parodies. Lucky Pierre shares with Goat Island an appreciation of the veiled suggestion over the finished statement; through repetition, routine, and rhythmic variation, they create images that flicker on the threshold of meaning.
The central images in this piece constellate around traditional signifiers of happiness: leaping into the air over and over, playing childhood games, singing “la la la la la.” But these signs have been yanked out of context and scattered almost haphazardly throughout the evening. They no longer instill joy in the performers (perhaps they never did), who end up barking “Smile!” at one another over and over. Even dancing about in homemade bear costumes seems about as enjoyable as making out a grocery list.
When their attempts to elicit spontaneous delight repeatedly fail, the performers instead try to create an inventory of the objects which surrounded a moment of past happiness on an unspecified summer day. After unstrapping himself from his harness, performer Vince Darmody scurries offstage and returns with four full garbage bags. He dumps the contents of the bags–rumpled clothing–at the feet of his fellow performers still hanging from the ceiling and then announces, “This is everything we wore one day last summer.”
As if realizing that the four piles of clothes signify nothing, Darmody immediately scoops them up into his arms and waddles offstage. Later performer Mary Zerkel positions herself on a stool stage left and lists everything she ate, drank, or swallowed “one day last summer,” while her male counterparts–Darmody, Noah Loesberg, and Michael Thomas–sit on stools across the stage and respond with a dull unison “OK” after each item Zerkel names.
It’s as if the performers think they will find happiness in the traces of that summer day–the clothes they wore, the food they ate–rather than in the day or, more pointedly, in themselves. Happiness becomes an archaeological artifact; maybe it was the shoes, maybe it was the stir-fry. In any event, it has no more life than a fossil, nor more flesh on its bones than the shadow animals the performers make with their hands all evening long. Happiness is, finally, an awfully sad evening.
And much of that sadness comes from the literal weight of the piece. It seems someone is always lugging some prop or furniture piece across the stage, including, at one point, a piano. Even Thomas’s rendition at this piano of the sweet ballad “If I Had You” (“I could show the world how to smile / I could be glad all of the while / I could turn the gray skies to blue / If I had you…”) seems leaden. The performers repeatedly try to defy this weight, which is nothing more than gravity itself, by staring upward and rolling onto the balls of their feet or by suspending themselves in midair. Getting off the ground seems to be the key to bliss.
In the piece’s most striking moment, Zerkel stands atop a stool, illuminated by a square of light from an overhead projector, her left leg out to the side and her arms spread wide above her head in a pose reminiscent of the Michael Jordan silhouette used to promote Nike Air. (Jordan, as the men have informed us earlier in the piece, appears happy because “he really gets off the ground.”)
As Zerkel, dubbed “your airness” by the men, stands motionless, Darmody goes to the overhead projector and colors her blue (unhappy) by filling in her outline with a blue marker. As the projected, gargantuan marker tip slowly climbs up Zerkel’s body, she becomes almost two-dimensional, and when she climbs down off the stool she leaves behind a flat blue trace of herself in a leap of simulated joy. It is the trace of Zerkel, rather than the woman herself, who “really gets off the ground” and who is, in the symbology of the piece, happy.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Lucky Pierre by R. Fox.