Enjoy a Fresh Look at Beckett's HAPPY DAYS at the Mead Theater
Any trip to Flashpoint on G Street is bound to be an adventure, beginning with the artists who experiment with new uses of the lobby space the moment you step in. It is even more satisfying to discover that the Mead Theater in back is giving new life to a classic play that, like the artwork out front, is far from being just another "museum piece."
Cultural DC's production of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days offers audiences a fresh look at a play that has become a legend in theatre circles, not least because of its unprecedented demands on the actress who performs the lead role. A study in perseverance against all odds, the characters are notable mainly for their ordinariness, the only extraordinary thing about them being the trap that they find themselves in. Director Jess Jung has collaborated with scenic and visual artists Joe C. Klug and Ryan Maxwell to evoke a fittingly post-apocalyptic seaside scene, where the detritus of modern civilization (typewriters, flash cameras, blackberries, etc.) combines with sand to form an impossible heap that seems designed to defeat Beckett's characters utterly.
In the midst of this heap we find Winny, a seemingly cheerful middle-aged housewife who as the play opens finds herself buried up to her waist in all the sand and junk. There she goes nattering away, strategically deploying items from her shopping bag and doing everything she can to make the best of her awkward situation. Her husband, Willie, shelters in a hole nearby and-in typical husbandly fashion-occasionally responds to her incessant chatter with the occasional grunt. By Act 2 we find Winny has sunk further into the sand, and is now buried up to her neck; the challenge is whether she can endure, the nature of her trap notwithstanding, and still make meaningful contact with her marginally-mobile husband nearby.
Samuel Beckett's insistence on half-burying the star of Happy Days was par for the course-he had a habit of sticking actors in trash cans, urns, what-have-you, to the point where we all wondered whether he simply hated us. (Having him direct you in one of his own shows was no picnic, either.) As a result there will always be 'worshipful' productions of his plays that stress the doom and gloom of his settings. But almost invariably, these productions miss the point: Beckett, being Irish, had that uniquely dark sense of humor that is as joyful, in its way, as it is misunderstood. If the audience chooses to see the emptiness and pointlessness of the life portrayed on-stage, let 'em; Beckett's characters are determined not to fall for sort of rubbish. In Jung's production it is survival, not surrender that matters. Whatever we may make of poor Winnie, in the end she is a normal person making the best of an impossible situation-and that, Beckett purists, has always been the point.
In addition to being largely motionless, the role of Winny requires memorizing upwards of 90 minutes of non-stop, free-association chatter that has left even the most accomplished actresses helpless: in one famous London production the star demanded that a prompter sit inside the mound, invisible to the audience, and feed her lines as needed (so much for all those 'significant pauses'-they were merely her way of asking for a line). How refreshing it is, then, to see Karen Lange's resilience in the role; not only has Lange mastered the lines she understands that Winnie's life involves a search for meaning, and it is this quest for meaning that gets her up every morning like clockwork, and drives her to carry on with only an occasional glimmer in her eyes of the panic and fear that most of us would feel. Lange also occasionally shows, through her eyes, that there once was a time when life was good and her husband something more than just another lump on the beach. (Speaking of which ...) As Willy, Christian Sullivan rises to the Sisyphean challenge of having to spend the entire evening on the floor, occasionally on his knees, barely capable of more than a monosyllabic response.
Before and after the show, audiences are invited to tour the stage setting-which, in the spirit of Cultural DC, is offered as exhibition pieces that complement the fascinating spiderweb-like installation in the lobby of Lindsay Pichaske's "Everything That Rises." The atmosphere is charged by the sometimes ominous sound design of Edward Young, right down to the creepy tinkling of a child's music box. Music, it turns out, plays a crucial role in the play, and Young does a good job of keeping it in the forefront even as he throws us the audio equivalent of junk at other points during the pre-show. Sean Patrick Forsythe's lighting, fittingly, reminds us that we are at the beach, and not in some godforsaken wasteland; this choice may surprise Beckett fans, but if anything it heightens the dramatic tension of the play. Trust me, these are Happy Days indeed, but with a twist.