What makes us happy? The clear if indirect answer in “Pursuit of Happiness” is a lot of laughs, since that’s what the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, a notoriously inventive downtown theater company, provides in their new theater piece. “Pursuit of Happiness” is a bizarre and hilarious hybrid of physical comedy and surreal Hollywood parody, which swings wildly from the Wild West to the Iraq War, and from wondrously slapstick to borderline offensive to surreptitiously insightful. It is running at the NYU Skirball Center only through January 14, as part of the Under the Radar Festival. Catch it if you can.
Directors Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper have enlisted as their cast a half dozen dancers from EnKnapGroup, a dance company based in Slovenia, who hail from five different European countries. None reportedly have had speaking roles before, much less in English. Yet, they all speak with a spot-on exaggerated Western twang in the first scene, which takes place in a saloon, complete with a fake wooden wall dotted Wanted posters, a rifle and a noose.
The characters all behave like 19th century Wild West stereotypes via Hollywood — they drink whiskey from a glass that glides the length of the wooden bar; they swing belligerently through the saloon’s wooden double doors; they break into fights, draw guns at one another, play cards warily, and spit frequently into a spittoon. Yet what they say is completely at odds with what they are doing. They speak like 21st century stereotypes, quoting Thoreau, complaining about their stalled careers or failed relationships, waxing abstract.
“What makes you happy?” Gilles, dressed as a gunslinger, asks Jeffrey, before he slugs him. “As for my self, I’ve been able to do, the past seven years, only what I love.”
It may sound like one joke, but the many iterations of these jarring juxtapositions are consistently funny. On a deeper level, they manage both to parody Hollywood shoot-em-ups and to satirize our generations’ over-intellectualized self-absorption. There are even moments, when one can see uncomfortable parallels between the two. Ida the Wild West character wears a big black cowboy hat, has a black eye and missing teeth. But Ida the 21st century adult talks about her abusive ex-husband, who left her for a younger woman. There is still the juxtaposition of her ignorant twang and sentences like: “My self-confidence, already at its baseline minimum to start with, has been irretrievably obliterated.” But there’s an edge to this particular juxtaposition.
(Ida is portrayed by Ida Hellsten from Sweden; all of the characters are given the first names of the performer portraying them.)
During this first scene, which lasts almost an hour, the sombrero-wearing bartender (Bence Mezei from Hungary) has not said a word. Abruptly, he begins to speak – and is the only performer to speak for the next hour, an extraordinary tour-de-force in which he describes a screenplay he’s written about the EnKnapp Dance Company’s “gig in Baghdad.” It’s an elaborately absurd tall tale, which involves NATO troops and Iraqi troops, and drone attacks, and explosions and injuries and deaths. Some of the moments skirt with the tasteless. But the scene is redeemed by the laugh-inducing physicality of the agile dancers, who serve as visual accompaniment to the spoken narrative, and by a steady stream of jokes about Red Bull energy drink, which probably shouldn’t work, but do.
In addition to everything else they do right, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma projects subtitles on the back wall, even though everybody is speaking English. It’s the one thing this inimitably ingenious theater company does that every other theater companies can easily copy, and should.