Happy as Larry—poor Larry

Fiona Carter: Shaun Parker & Company, Happy As Larry

Ghenoa Gela, Happy as Larry, Shaun Parker & Company

Ghenoa Gela, Happy as Larry, Shaun Parker & Company

Ghenoa Gela, Happy as Larry, Shaun Parker & Company

At the end of a long and tiring day, this was a work that instantly gathered me up, gave me a quick hug and held my hand from start to finish. I was drawn in right from the start, literally. A giant blackboard formed the dominant stage set and the dancer I came to think of as Larry (Timothy Ohl) stood alone on stage as the audience entered, drawing rows of people he identified as “You,” then adding one childlike image of a person labelled “Me.” From here on Larry manipulated the performance with the drawings and words flowing from his chunky coloured chalk.

Director Shaun Parker has chosen to pose the question “What Makes Us Happy?” by depicting his dancers as different personality types. Each character’s choreography reveals their personality, what makes them happy, and how that happiness transforms when they interact with each other. The Boss derives happiness from marking the space in which another can dance. Beginning as a fun game for both, the restricted dancer becomes frustrated as the size of the marked space decreases. The Observer, always watching from the sidelines, enjoys happiness vicariously but is never able to engage fully in the joy of those he observes. The Perfectionist gains happiness from his own body and fails to fulfill the needs of the Tragic Romantic as she tries in vain to secure his devotion. The Performer initially bathes in the admiration of his audience until his failed act loses their support.

The large blackboard is cleverly manipulated about the stage, acting as a signboard to the changing vignettes exploring friendship, love, loneliness and, of course, happiness. Added to this are some simple props—balloons, a pair of rollerskates, a striped basketball—complemented by subtle lighting which enhances the simplicity of the design.

The soundtrack, drawing from a range of musical styles, reflects the changing moods of the piece and the mix of dance styles, from contemporary, to street, to roller disco. As time and again happiness fades, the music too returns from its upbeat percussive and bass drive to sorrowful, classical string tones. This dynamic suggests a theme of happiness lost, giving the score dramatic cohesion.

One final, high energy scene with the entire cast lifts the spirits in a happy, chalky, sweaty mess before the dancers slowly depart the stage, leaving Larry alone as the solo violin saws out its lament.

Through most of the performance I laughed, I smiled, I felt energised by the sheer joy and physicality of the choreography. Even when things turned sour I remained optimistic that happiness would return. Then I stepped out of the theatre and ever since I’ve had a creeping sense of sorrow that recognises the fragile and transient nature of happiness. As Parker notes, human happiness “is precious…as elusive as it is concrete” (program note).

It was wonderful to see Josh Mu return to the Darwin stage. As a boy, Josh performed with Tracks Dance Company. With no tertiary dance or drama education available in the Northern Territory, many of our talented young performers pack up their swags and head south to pursue their careers. Josh is now clearly at the peak of his physical abilities. I felt a happiness that the director could never have intended. Seeing an artist master his craft, I swelled with a bit of local pride.

11 September 2013