Sunday, July 15 , 2018, 6:43 pm | Fair 76º


Review: ‘World of Extreme Happiness’ at UCSB Offers Powerful Theater in Small Space

'Human-centric play' blends urban American linguistic verve with traditional Chinese culture

Lillian Young plays the role of Sunny in UCSB’s “The World of Extreme Happiness.” Click to view larger
Lillian Young plays the role of Sunny in UCSB’s “The World of Extreme Happiness.” (UCSB Department of Theater and Dance photo)

Six long bamboo poles, each with a folded newsprint bird hanging by a string, greeted us in the foyer, introducing the central theme and imagery of “The World of Extreme Happiness” that closed Sunday at UCSB’s Performing Arts Theater.

Written by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, an internationally produced playwright who is director of the dramatic writing concentration in UCSB’s Department of Theater and Dance, “Extreme Happiness” blends urban American linguistic verve with traditional Chinese culture.

Entering the theater’s dimly lit story space, I immediately felt at home, in the presence of people doing mundane but purposeful actions and very much in community with one another.

Nine ensemble actors sat on the center of the floor working with newspaper, folding accordion fans, cutting long strips, filling metal buckets and talking to one another quietly.

By “curtain,” every scrap was tidied up and simple blocks were placed on the floor in front of each of the four sections of seats. Every movement was simple and ritualistic.

The environment was clearly centered on the players.

Director Daniel Stein explained in his program notes, “This is a very human-centric play, and we have attempted to make a very human-centric production.”

Spare sets featured simple bamboo structures in opposite corners: a second-story platform, a tall red ladder that comes into play only in the final scene.

The director’s background at Northern California’s Dell’Arte International school of physical theater brought a dynamic life to the production.

The entire cast moved and vocalized with distinct clarity. In addition to making for eye-catching choregraphy, stylized movement advanced the plot.

The actors of the ensemble provided soundscape with speech and verbal sound effects. Set changes took shape as they transformed into chairs, bathroom stalls, revolving doors and mirrors, and  pounding poles on the floor marked new scenes, new moods, plot turns.

The play begins with the birth of Sunny (played compellingly by nontheater major Lillian Young), a girl who as a newborn effects a U-turn on her peasant family’s attempts to kill her. With bright eyes and a smile in spite of having been shut in a slop bucket, she inspires her father to let her live.

Sunny’s vibrant energy carries forward as we next see her scrubbing bathrooms in the city, where she has been working since she was 14 to send her little brother to school — the boy her parents longed for, but at whose birth their mother perished.

Her father, Li Han, a lifelong pigeon breeder and racer consumed with the loss of his wife and beloved brother, has become obsessed with the birds to the exclusion of his children and the changing world.

The play mirrors the arc of recent history by instilling optimism with a story about a girl who defies odds and then by crushing that hopefulness in a tale of striving, opportunity, manipulation, rebellion and betrayal.

The play integrates Maoist and contemporary Chinese ideological and social dynamics, corruption, the harsh reality of factory life and mass migration of rural people to cities, all of which twist and choke aspiration, transformation and hope with misogyny, coercion and brutality.

The beautiful sets and calm mood when you arrive, the triumph of a baby’s smile and a plucky protagonist set you up to expect a hopeful, if not happy, ending, and what you get is anything but. In this way, the play itself engenders, with mind-blowing metaphorical power, the very feelings you imagine the characters experience at the corruption of their dreams.

As the only campus in the University of California system that offers a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater performance, UCSB attracts and trains talented student actors. As their local audience, we benefit immensely.

— Local arts critic Judith Smith-Meyer is a round-the-clock appreciator of the creative act. She can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are her own.

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