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Thursday, January 27,2011

Questioning the questioner

'Happy Holy Days' has humor, although its insights are debatable

by Mary C. Cusack

“Happy Holy Days”, an original work written and directed by
Michigan State University Theatre Head of Acting and Directing Rob Roznowski,
tells the rather unhappy tale of one woman’s lifelong struggle to make peace
with herself, her loved ones, and maybe her maker. If she has one. She’s not always sure about that, which is the crux of the play.


Sherrie’s story unfolds in a non-linear fashion, flipping
backward and forward in time to holidays ranging from 1977 to 2039. Each of those holidays is a touchstone
moment in her spiritual and intellectual development.


Unfortunately, Sherrie (Mikayla Bouchard) is not a character
with whom it is easy to empathize. As the play bounces around decades, Sherrie’s character bounces in
personality from curious innocence to na've piety to brittle
inflexibility. As a curious
youngster and an uptight young adult she is cute, if not a bit cloying. However, the adult Sherrie is
intolerant and intolerable.


Bouchard has two big challenges in taking on this role, the
first being the stiffness of the character as written. The second challenge is that she is
stepping into a role previously played by her talented peer Leslie Hull. “Days” was presented as a reading at
last year’s Renegade Theatre Festival, and Hull nailed the role. While the character could still be
annoying, Hull managed to bring more warmth and subtlety to the role. Bouchard struggles to bring a unique quality
to each era of Sherrie’s life.


Opposites must attract, since Sherrie’s atheist husband Dale (Andrew
Harvey) is as warm and accessible as she is cold and inflexible. Dale is comfortable with his beliefs,
or lack thereof, and doesn’t preach or question. He just is. Harvey imbues Dale with a combination of aw-shucks charm,
patience, and sincere acceptance of everyone around him, despite their
different views.


Roznowski seems to enjoy addressing universal issues. His 2007 script and production of “Art
or Crafts” addressed the question about whether creative output is art or craft,
and the even bigger question of does that even matter? In “Happy Holy Days” he tackles the
issue of spiritual belief systems and, more intimately, how one person
struggles to synthesize learned beliefs and life experiences into a belief
system that makes sense.


This is no new debate. It’s simply a theatrical version of the 3 a.m. conversation. You know what I mean: Walk through the
halls of any college dorm or apartment complex at 3 a.m. on a weekend and
you’ll hear the drunken conversations evolve on topics ranging from wars and sex to
religion. It’s a clich'd rite of
passage for middle-class students, those who have the comforts of leisure time
and financial resources that allow them to question such things.


The question for the audience then is what new angle does
Roznowski bring to the issue? That’s the part that is hard to grasp. Sherrie’s exposition is too obvious, bordering on
preachy. The character is neither
a caricature, nor is she ironic. If
the point that the audience is supposed to walk away with is that everyone else
in Sherrie’s life is a damned saint to put up with her, then the script is a
winner. That supposition is a long
shot, though.


Which is not to say that the play isn’t enjoyable on many
levels, starting with Renee Surprenant’s minimal set. The backdrop is a massive Advent-like holiday calendar
featuring a wonderfully clever amalgamation of iconic holiday characters. The doors open up into mini-scenes that
capture the essence of each holiday.


The script has some extremely rewarding funny moments, with
a supporting cast that salvages the otherwise dour outcome. Tim Smela forgoes personal dignity to
deliver hilarious turns as Baby New Year, a Leprechaun, and the Easter
Bunny. Megan McDowell, as
Sherrie’s mom, brings maternal warmth to multiple stages of life, from
dithering young mother to memory-impaired geriatric. She and David Clauson kill as Dale’s relations from
Minnesota, out-Fargoing “Fargo” with their spot-on stereotypical accents.


The always-reliable Paiget Ventus once again shows her ability to change
affectation on a dime as Sherrie’s wild-child friend Gloria, her stoic boss
Lynette, and her Hindi sister-in-law Puja. And she gets to deliver two of the funniest lines of the
work. The first is a wide-eyed yet
winking reminder that “theater is the best way to present any message!” The second one I won’t spoil, but' it shines a whole new light on the humorous value of ruffies.


‘Happy Holy Days’


Michigan
State University Auditorium Arena Theatre 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 27; 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 28, and
Saturday, Jan. 29; 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 29, and Sunday, Jan. 30 (with
director pre-show talk at 1:15 p.m.) All seats $8. (800) WHARTON or
www.whartoncenter.com



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