At the Taper, Beckett Delivers Hope and Despair

DTLA—As time ceaselessly marches, humans rise, find ways to fill the day, rest and do it all again. It’s a cycle that a cynic could call repetitive pointlessness that is relieved only by death.

At least that’s the metaphoric blanket covering so many of Samuel Beckett’s plays — most of which are a good deal shorter than his 1961 two-act, two-hour Happy Days.

Perhaps the absurdist revolutionary didn’t need to hammer quite as hard and quite as long, but a Downtown production of Happy Days, powered by a hopelessly hopeful and fully mesmerizing Dianne Wiest, pushes the disconcerting narrative that human interaction is soulless and day-to-day activities are simply habit.

Directed by James Bundy, the production originated two years ago by the Yale Repertory Theatre opened last week at the Mark Taper Forum. The show runs through June 30.

Beckett rarely seemed constrained — or concerned — with audience expectations, as several of his plays are quite brief. Happy Days, meanwhile, pushes the boundaries for repetition. Cutting 20-30 minutes from the first act wouldn’t hurt the somber, sober tone that builds through the second act. On the other hand, the length itself becomes part of its impact because sitting through Winnie’s excruciating daily routine drives home its banality.

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Essentially plot-less, while visually arresting, Happy Days raises its red curtain on the proscenium stage to find Winnie (Wiest) buried to her stomach in a hole on a desolate desert hill. The bell from the sky signals a new day; Winnie prays, brushes her teeth, reads the writing on the toothbrush, and removes items from her large black bag, including a large gun.

Though it’s almost entirely monologue, Winnie is talking to her husband, Willie (Michael Rudko), who is on the other side of the hill. He is visible only briefly and speaks but a few words.

Neither being buried nor an ignoring husband stops Winnie from her daily prattle, in which she finds ways to complain while stating that she’s not complaining. At a key moment she even recounts a story of a man who saw her in the hole and asked what it all means — a preemptive shot at the audience, which is wondering the exact same thing.

Though the first act is lengthy, the second is textbook pacing up to an unsettling climax.

Bundy, like many who tackle Beckett’s works, adheres to the playwright’s exact descriptions and staging notes. This doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room, and neither does the hole Wiest lives in for the night. Yet within that confine Wiest offers a complex emotional palette, from mild annoyance to aching sadness — with plenty of laughter through the pain jokes.

The second act is remarkable. With only her head visible, Wiest shows depth, as the character’s mood depresses into a morose longing for the bell to stop ringing and to bring an end to the suffering.

Wiest carries the production, as any Winnie must do, and she imbues the character with a sense of grace and attempts at optimism that makes her situation more painful to watch. Much of that comes through her delivery, which flows from chipper quips to harsh, quiet tones and back again. Her use of facial expressions is impressive, even more so given that she has little body motion to accompany them.

Though there’s not much to work with, Rudko makes the most of his few lines, offering a couple of early genuine laughs, as well as a dramatic return near the climax that leaves audiences guessing his motives.

Izmir Inkball’s desert set is claustrophobic and desolate. Mixed with Stephen Strawbridge’s pounding lighting design, the result is a wholly inhospitable environment.

It’s important for the uninitiated to recognize that, as with most Beckett, story is not even secondary. Rather, it’s all subtext and metaphor, and no easy-to-follow passive viewing plot is forthcoming. While there are laughs, they all come at the expense of accepting the despair of the situation.

That said, Happy Days is one of Beckett’s last lengthy works, and one you’re unlikely to see receive such a high-caliber and thoughtful rendition for many years.

Happy Days runs through June 30 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772 or centertheatregroup.org.

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