Sex Among the Stanzas

College poetry profs get it on in public, to the sound of laughter, at Cleveland Public Theatre

If someone asked you to attend a play about two college professors, written in rhyming verse and centering on the poetry of William Blake, you might be tempted to hide behind (or maybe under) the largest rock you could find.

However, if you were told the play involved the after-effects of a public sex act and that the production is intellectually stimulating, rude and hilarious in equal parts, you might be tempted.

Well, all of the above are true about There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, now at Cleveland Public Theatre. And it is a theatrical experience not to be missed, since the splendid script is matched by absolutely riveting performances. And even if the boat gets a little rocky towards the end, director Beth Wood skillfully brings it all to a most satisfying conclusion.

Bernard and Ellen are professors at a small college, lecturers on William Blake and his poetry of the Romantic Age. The day before, our two profs were outdoors, amid a bucolic setting, reading poetry to their classes.

Evidently overtaken by Blake's evocation of "free love," the instructors fell into uninhibited sex on the ground. This was in full view of their students until the college president, James Dean, rushed in and threw a mud mat over the panting pedagogues.

Now, the educators have been told they'll be fired unless they apologize for their lustful indiscretion. And that's where the sparks start to fly. Bernard enters, covered in leaves from spending a night of happy reverie in the woods. He is filled with the emotion mentioned in the play's title, and can barely contain his joy.

After writing love-drenched lines from Blake on the blackboard (and floor), he does get around to the subject at hand: "While reading, sure, it does sound somewhat crass/we had intimate relations on the grass/In twilight blue, in front of all of you." But he finds it a wonderful and beautiful thing.

When Ellen addresses her class, after drawing a defiant chalk line down the center of the stage to separate herself from Bernard, the mood is markedly different. She's pissed at Bernard, at James, and at campus politics. "I found this note inside my box at dawn/A tersely squirted jizz: my job is gone." So she repeatedly says, "I'm sorry" while railing at happy-bomb Bernard and the clueless college president.

This is all executed in the playwright's glorious language, as dense and lush as a tropical rainforest. Ranging from the sublime to the profane, the script never lets the audience relax. Yet it is consistently and thrillingly entertaining.

But there are other secrets to come, such as a challenge facing Ellen that throws her relationships with everyone into an entirely new context. And when President Dean finally starts speaking, explaining his strange habits and predilections, the laughs come fast and furious.

As Bernard, Brian Pedaci creates a gushy, drooling love addict who is a perfect foil for the more uptight and rational Ellen. This former folk singer who teaches just one class is an obvious poseur, but he's just so damn glad he got fucked he can barely contain himself.

In the immensely challenging role of Ellen, Derdriu Ring masterfully manages her cascading couplets, revealing more about her character even as she lashes out with spiteful edge at the forces that torment her.

These are two people, sharing the same love of a poet, not to mention each other's bodies, yet they are headed in two dramatically different directions. And they play Maher's word score to perfection.

In the last half hour of this 90-minute show, Matthew Wright appears as Dean and comes perilously close to tipping over the thematic applecart. Wright is so spontaneously and convulsively amusing, as he plumbs the ever-deepening neuroses of this muddled major domo, that the interplay of Ellen and Bernard almost becomes an afterthought.

But thanks to the firm hand of director Wood, and Todd Krispinsky's inspired Eden-like classroom set design, this engrossing play proves positively orgasmic from beginning to end.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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