Pursuit of Happiness is the very loaded title and premise of the newest show from Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, the hyper-creative team behind Nature Theater of Oklahoma, and performed by the Slovenian dance troupe En-Knap. Loaded because Liska and Copper never take anything for granted (as evidenced by their dizzying epic of spoken-word banality, Life and Times); they have a mordant sense of humor (the clipped phrase of the show’s title is a sardonic poke at their collaborators’ stilted English, mined throughout the show for humor); and because they don’t keep their opinions to themselves. We know “the pursuit of happiness” as one of three “unalienable rights” enshrined by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence. But what is happiness, exactly, Liska and Copper want to know, an exercise that, in a country that is starting to deny basic rights to its citizens, has become a political question too. They hint at a few answers, before making it clear, with unflattering frankness, that it is definitely not how your average (narcissistic) American would define it.
Ouch. Yet this barb, whose full expression you can read later in this review, flies right past in a show that, like Life and Times, seems hell bent on creating its own genre, leaving us guessing through its first half as to what the show’s intentions are and where it is going.
Pursuit of Happiness skews somewhere between a bad spaghetti western, a vainglorious action film and the cheery dance platitudes of the Rockettes, and its storyline plays out at a weird intersection between Saving Private Ryan and The Book of Mormon. The show’s first half, set in a saloon and populated by a sorry band of bruised-up cowboys, nods to Sergio Corbucci’s Django or Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, but in those films’ fist- and gun-slinging only. The characters are nothing like Clint Eastwood’s bad dudes; in fact, their problems – many, we learn – are more of the self-created, existential nature that are their own trope of middle America. And so when they aren’t trying to punch each other’s lights out in comic strip style brawls that practically shout “kapow” and “wham” (another pop culture reference at work here), they engage in an open therapy session, diving into their woes and asking for and offering advice, in archly sentimental tones (“there is thickness in my heart,” reveals one cowboy; “I’m in a permanent self-help mode, which only sickens me the more” shares another…) delivered in the actors’ awkward, slow drawl. At one point, in between brawling and spitting, their conversation becomes an invitation to debate Thoreau’s statement that “the majority of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Initial resistance on our part to this visual/verbal disconnect eventually gives way to amused disbelief.
Which is exactly the frame of mind that Liska and Copper want us to be in for the show’s second half. This takes place entirely in the mind of the saloon’s bartender, Bence (dressed in a Mariachi outfit and sporting a healthy walrus mustache), and catapults the action from the violence of the American west to the brutality of America’s war in Iraq. The concerns are the same: what is happiness and also, who is apparently deserving of its “pursuit”? Bence answers it with a hilariously frenzied account of the EnKnapGroup dancers performing a virtuosic choreography for American and Iraqi troops that reconciles the warring factions and earns the company the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s all a dream of course (and one that goes horribly wrong, even in the dancer’s wildest fantasies) but if we let ourselves be distracted by this genuinely astonishing, and sometimes sidesplitting rêverie, we do so at our own peril. In this extended tableau of square dancing, machine-gun fire, spattering blood and an almost demonic Red Bull marketing campaign (the details of which I won’t go into here), Liska and Copper are in fact stalking their target with the precision of a sniper, and it’s a political target too.
What can be the balance between happiness and the artist in America today, is more precisely the question they are after. Nature Theater of Oklahoma hails from New York City but has found its happiness mostly outside of the US. Life and Times, a 16-hour long work that consumed the company for seven years, is a genre-bending, boldly ambitious work that could only come to life with the deep pockets of European producing partners. In short, it was too big and too adventurous to find a public at home, leading the company to travel, and to make European connections with other artists the likes of EnKnapGroup, the dance company founded by Iztok Kovač. Bence’s fantasy begins with a confession that sounds like the road taken by NTOK’s founders since the end of Life and Times, “a perilous path to reinvent how the company functions and what kind of work it makes.”
Their answer is Pursuit of Happiness, a certainly fruitful collaboration with the dancers of EnKnap, who spend the second half of the show bouncing like Mexican jumping beans after the fake brawls and bluster of its first. It also offers the revelation of the comic talents of Bence Mezei, the fictional EnKnapGroup’s artistic director and the show’s star, who delivers Liska and Copper’s black humor with such disabused brio that he pulls us irresistibly into his totally failed artistic and political foray. But as impossible as it is, that endeavor is an obvious begging of the question of activism for the artist today. Can art change the world? Like Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil asked in A Room in India, Pursuit of Happiness uses humor and an impossible scenario to wade into the debate, demonstrating again that even going out on a limb is better than staying rooted to familiar territory.
Pursuit of Happiness also asks, more bitingly, in the “self-help mode” of the saloon scene, what the American artist, in particular, should do. Liska and Copper apparently have no truck with the problems, financial, relational and emotional (as reveled in by those cowboys) that might keep him from making art or even being an adult in a world that is much larger than his blinkered vision can see. “All problems are heavy,” the cowboys eventually agree. “But it is good to always keep one’s life in perspective with the rest of the world. If one does not, one becomes, alas, an American.”