Chicago Theatre Review
Family, History, and Introspection Merge in Sideshow’s ‘Happiest Place on Earth’
The Happiest Place on Earth – Sideshow Theatre Company
The latest – and very likely the best – entry in the Greenhouse Theater Center’s continuing series of solo performances, “The Happiest Place on Earth” is one of the more thoroughly original plays I’ve been on a Chicago stage this year, both a gleeful celebration of family and a profound probe into the nature of happiness and satisfaction.
Written and performed by Philip Dawkins, “The Happiest Place on Earth” is family memoir as theater, but in the most nuanced of ways. Tracking the arc of Dawkins’ family – from the early death of his mother’s father, to her family’s embrace of yearly trips to Disney Land to deal with their grief, to his own annual pilgrimages to the theme park – Dawkins writes and performs the material with beautiful ease, as he and director Jonathan L. Green create an air as welcoming as any family gathering; we truly feel as though we are in Dawkins’ family room, listening to his stories about his conspiracy-loving aunt, or how his grandparents met, or the interesting backstories behind “Tomorrowland” and “Adventureland.”
Aside from Dawkins’ lovable, affable personality, “Happiest Place” also benefits from two other sources: its unique presentation and emotional honesty. First, on presentation, all one-person shows require a conceit of some kind to further their message; whether it be specific lighting, props, or impersonations, cuts in the action are needed to engage the audience and hold its attention. “Happiest Place” offers a delightfully retro strategy for that – along with Dawkins’ hilarious impressions of his family members, the performer uses an old-school overhead, upon which he projects family photos, maps, and other images of nostalgia to further his narrative; the approach made me yearn for the days of grade school math.
And second, on emotional honesty, there is a refreshing (and engaging) element of directness to Dawkins’ storytelling, one that turns the initial tone of the show on its head. As the play progresses, and as Dawkins further delves into both his family’s history and the underlying philosophies of Walt Disney and his magical theme park, “Happiest Place” becomes as much a philosophical pondering on happiness as it does history, and whether or not people can truly be happy amidst all the other constraints and demands of modern adult life; surely, such are themes that have been explored before, but rarely in such an unguarded, honest fashion.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through Oct. 23 by Sideshow Theatre Company and Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-404-7336 or by going to http://www.greenhousetheater.org/.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com