THE STAGE SPACE for the Compound's current production, Happy?, reaches back into an enormous expanse of white; white flooring, white walls, white ceiling. White costumes hang suspended from wires. At center stand a row of round metal frames -- one in front of the other -- mounted on wheels. A thin layer of Plexiglas stretched across each frame turns them into giant corneal lenses, something like those an optometrist flips before our eyes to test vision. At the rear, a projector has picked out a square with its light. At the front, a trout swims lazily in its tank. Live crickets throng in a Plexiglas box. Along the lip of the stage, small placards draw the line between audience space and stage space. They read: Handkerchief. Candles. Punch cup. Letter T. Pearl. Donut. Bones. Chicken. Flowers. The space is a giant projection screen, filled with promising teasers, pregnant with possibility.

I've described the setting in such detail only because creating a dreamlike, evocative mise-en-scène is what the Compound has always done most brilliantly. An audience member sits down in front of these seemingly unconnected scenic elements and begins to work immediately to build a connective tissue -- a narrative -- and then to build anticipation for how this narrative will compare to the one that will eventually unfold on stage. It's this contrast between the two that engages audiences. In past productions, such as blueStory and Coated, the Compound has pulled off this theatrical fait accompli better than any group of artists I've seen.

Not this time. Happy? is still in search of a fully formed idea. The show was originally commissioned by its producer, Matthew Richter, to explore themes from Consolidated Works' debut exhibition, Artificial Life. In fact, the production does offer up a number of contrivances that riff on the notion of life contained and restrained: the trout in the tank, the crickets encased, bodies mediated through Plexiglas and voices mediated through microphones, or live interaction with pre-recorded sound. Further supporting the theme is an emphasis on mechanical repetition, as seen in jerky dance numbers and the ongoing projection of a pair of lips kissing, and the script's preoccupation with lists, schedules, categories, taxonomies, measures, recipes, harmonies.

These elements all have the potential to anchor the production in an interesting -- if abstract -- structure. Happy? only begins to explore what constitutes happiness (life) and artifice (death) in the context of its clever mise-en-scène. (Occasionally, a beautifully turned phrase or image will start in that direction: "Death is a melody that you cannot get out of your head. When you have died... you're singing along with everyone else.") But Happy? just keeps stopping itself to detour.

Unfortunately, the Compound chooses not to edit out the gems from their conceptual process, but rather indulge whatever tangents the process provoked. The small cast, which includes Erik Maahs, Ben Warren, Cynthia Whalen, Seanjohn Walsh, and the magnetic, magnificent Sarah Harlett, play a host of characters whose presence can't quite be accounted for by anyone other than a Compound member. Thomas Jefferson, his wife Martha, and their daughter appear. Superman, Wonder Woman, and Spiderman share the space with Beach Boy Brian Wilson. Pearl Bailey makes an off-stage appearance. This parade is less revealing than simply too heavy for support.

In an interview with Compound members in the Artificial Life program, Walsh notes that their style is meant to look at "the ticks between the seconds, the glue of the universe...." In other words, the gaps between signs as well as the signs themselves tell a story. Happy? leaves no time for its audience to contemplate those gaps, to participate in a process that got them from Thomas Jefferson to Superman. Co-writer and co-director John Holyoke in turn insists that the elements of the production are not meant to obscure narrative, but to create a narrative that includes "an actor's hand movements or the ripple of a piece of cloth; the sensory pleasures of being in this room at this time and actually looking at the things in front of you...." But the production, rich as it is in sensory possibilities, chooses to overwhelm these quiet narrative moments by crowding the production with coy non-sequiturs and clever props. As much as co-writer and co-director Kristin Newbom says she enjoys things "you can feel in your gut," the production doesn't travel far enough below the head to get there. Nothing seems to be driving this narrative, much less the gut. As a result, much of the two hours feels incomplete and stubbornly incommunicative, like communing with a beautiful corpse.

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