Thursday, May 18, 2017

10 (2017-2018): Review: HAPPY DAYS (seen May 17, 2017)

"End of Days"

Happy Days, Samuel Beckett’s minimalist exercise in existential angst (originally called Female Solo), first written and produced in French and then given its English-language premiere at Off Broadway’s Cherry Lane in 1961, is not unlike a piece of classical music. Everything in the stage directions is fastidiously laid out, every i dotted and t crossed, but each artist interpreting Winnie, its principal role, nonetheless finds something new, something personal, something nuanced that makes its performance unique.
Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Numerous international actresses of renown have tackled Winnie, which some consider a “Hamlet for women.” In 2014 New York saw Brooke Adams (with Tony Shalhoub as Winnie’s rickety husband, Willie) play the role. Currently, two-time Academy Award-winner Dianne Wiest (with the excellent Jarlath Conroy) has buried herself in the role, so to speak, for a production that opened last spring at the Yale Rep and is now at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center under the aegis of Theatre for a New Audience. The skilled director is James Bundy, dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Rep.
Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Winnie is an incredibly difficult role, requiring the actress to be immersed in a mound of earth on a brightly lit stage (lighting by Stephen Strawbridge) from the waist down throughout Act One, and to play the entire second act further embedded in the mound, with only her head showing. Izmir Ickbal’s set, a sprawl of scorched earth under the vast expanse of a palpably artificial blue sky lit by a “blazing” sun, is subverted by a false proscenium, hanging velvet curtain tabs, and scallop-shell footlights suggesting a music hall ambiance. 
The design, perhaps, was inspired by Beckett’s words calling for “a pathetic unsuccessful realism, the kind of tawdriness you get in a 3rd rate musical or pantomime, that quality of pompier, laughably earnest bad imitation." In Beckett’s early thoughts, he considered a place that had been struck by missiles. Given the state of today’s world, it might not be long before someone places Winnie in a missile crater. End of Days, anyone?
Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Winnie’s garrulity, while seemingly straightforward, simple, and concrete, is nonetheless shrouded in ambiguity, with only vague hints about her past and present circumstances. Her stream of consciousness chatter is delivered to the mostly uncommunicative Willie, whose role has a mere 47 words. Usually (except for a sequence shortly before the final curtain) Willie, who lives in a cave, remains hidden or partly hidden behind the mound, where he reads an old, yellowing newspaper. There are numerous opportunities for laughs in Winnie’s lines, including references to sex and personal hygiene.
Jarlath Conroy, Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Winnie, “a woman of about fifty,” in a black bodice (costumes by Alexei Visel), her shoulders and arms bare, wakes up each day and goes to sleep to a loud bong. In Act One she gets through the eternal day, on which the sun never sets, with no shade to protect her. When she opens her parasol, it bursts into flames. Her actions are limited to a ritualized sequence of behavior involving a specific assortment of hand props taken from a large bag. Most are for her personal grooming but there’s also a revolver, whose presence suggests a way out of her situation. Meanwhile, In Act Two, although she’s not free to use it any longer, it’s only inches from her face.
Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Despite her debilitating condition, Winnie does her best to remain composed and optimistic, remembering bits and pieces of her life, sometimes recalling a snatch of poetry, sometimes praying, and finding enough inspiration from even the slightest hints of positivity to cheerfully announce what a happy day it is. In Act Two, when Bundy’s staging hides her neck and has only her head showing, she seems little more than an insignificant blond raisin drying in the sun, as she imagines that the unresponsive Willie might be dead. Regardless, she maintains her bright (now aged) face while fighting more evidently than before to restrain her sorrow and suffering.
Jarlath Conroy.Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Apart from that of the less impressive Brooke Adams’s performance, described here, memory and the relative similarity of each performance prevents me from accurately comparing Wiest’s Winnie with the four or five others I’ve seen. Hers, naturally, is as good as any. It does seem, though, that Act One’s pacing, with so many long pauses, is a bit draggy and that Wiest, as my companion also noted, seems more concerned with her moment by moment thoughts than any ultimate objective; the same problem also affected Adams’s portrayal. However, Wiest, faithfully carrying out Beckett’s detailed business, perfectly matches her own winsomeness to Winnie’s struggle to maintain an upbeat attitude in the face of the inevitable. Lovers of Beckett and Wiest will have little to complain about.
Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Wiest's voice is marvelously musical, and she sometimes seems to sing her lines, giving them a metric regularity. She uses her instrument with considerable variation, especially when changing it rapidly to mimic someone she remembers, like Mr. Shower (or Cooker), or to shift from one emotional level to another, beautifully capturing each subtextual inference, comic and poignant.
Jarlath Conroy, Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Toward the play’s end, Willie appears in formal attire, “dressed to kill,” says the script, wearing a “Very long bushy white Battle of Britain moustache.” He struggles on hands and knees to reach Winnie. Or is it the gun he’s after? Beckett himself said he didn’t know. On the night I went, Willie’s mustache, its glue having failed, drooped precariously from the motionless actor’s face. Was it an accident or a directorial nod to some existential enigma? With Beckett you never know.


Theatre for a New Audience
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
Through May 28