There's something primal about the set for Samuel Beckett's Happy Days: A giant pile of dirt that consumes the entire stage in Cal Shakes' new production. Propped up by a two-by-four base with flakeboard, the pile is cluttered with household objects — a doll, a set of wagon wheels, a rusted cheese grater, and an old-fashioned radio. It's the contents of a woman's life spilled out, and the woman, Winnie, is buried, waist-deep, within. She's left with a parasol and a black purse, from which she pulls several items: a toothbrush, a comb, medicine, a nail file, a magnifying glass, a tube of lipstick, a music box, and a gun. Each she handles each with incredible care, reading aloud the fine print on the toothbrush label, meticulously filing her nails and quaffing the medicine, pointing the gun at her head and then placing it lovingly on the earth beside her. Winnie calls out to her husband Willie, who remains offstage for most of the play but nonetheless seems omnipresent — a laconic, scruffy, driveling, snot-dripping, Vaseline-smearing, snarly-haired, incorrigibly rude man with a huge gash running across his head. He's the only thing to keep Winnie from being alone in the wilderness.
Like many of Beckett's works, it's freighted with symbolism that could be interpreted several different ways. Obviously, Happy Days is a play about entrapment. Winnie cannot escape, just as Vladimir and Estragon couldn't escape in Waiting for Godot. In Winnie's case, it's literal — the earth is packed around her and she can't move. She's stuck in a number of other ways, to boot: In an unhappy relationship, in a society that repressed women, in a world of eternal daylight (the alarm bell tells her when to wake and sleep), in a prison of denial. She chatters incessantly throughout the play — to whom, it's not exactly clear. Perhaps Beckett meant to break the fourth wall, though it's more likely that Winnie's just trying to buoy herself.
Happy Days is quite a departure for California Shakespeare Theater and for director Jonathan Moscone, who seldom traffics in abstract material. Oft characterized as one of Beckett's more accessible plays, it's still full of equivocal language and lines repeated over and over again, with a slightly different meaning each time. The play has two actors and a fairly uneven division of labor: Willie has 54 words and several well-placed grunts; otherwise, Winnie carries the play. Her monologue — really a series of non sequiturs — is incredibly difficult to memorize, and apparently the Beckett Estate mandates that it all be articulated verbatim. Thus, actress Patty Gallagher was saddled with a near impossible task when she took on the role two weeks ago, a last-minute substitute for Marsha Mason. UC Santa Cruz professor Gallagher had played the role before (she says she's currently learning Winnie's lines in Spanish for a South American director), but she still had to rememorize ninety minutes' worth of intense, tortuous monologue, and inflect it with her own personality. Moreover, she had to figure out how to communicate largely through her face and eyes, since Winnie doesn't have the luxury of body language (in the play's second half, she's buried up to her neck in dirt). Not to mention the play requires her to use a broad vocal range without a microphone.
Despite the odds, Gallagher is terrific as Winnie. She captures Beckett's mordant sense of humor and his sense of absurdity in the quotidian. She makes light of her situation ("The earth is very tight today ... or can it be that I put on flesh?") and makes deeply philosophical — and painful — observations about her relationship with Willie. "I can only imagine what is passing through your mind," she taunts, after Willie has surfaced, briefly, to read the newspaper and then retreated back into his hole. "It is not enough to listen to the woman, I must look at her as well." She makes Winnie seem flirty, self-pitying, misguidedly optimistic, and equipped with incredible will to survive.
Dan Hiatt also brings fantastic concentration to the role of Willie, which could just as easily be played for clownishness. For most of the first act he putters around offstage, audible but unobservable to the audience and to a jilted Winnie. When he does emerge, he keeps his back to the audience, carefully places a derby hat on his head and buries his nose in the newspaper. In the second act, Winnie doesn't know if he's there or not, and when he resurfaces — dressed to kill, according to the stage directions — he tries to scrabble up the dirt toward Winnie. He's reaching for something, but it's not clear what. The purse? The umbrella? The gun? Hiatt makes a fierce go of it as Gallagher eggs him on, in what turns out to be the play's tensest moment.
Happy Days was first published in 1961, and the time period it portrays is even earlier — probably a magical realist version of the 1930s. In the right hands, though, it can seem thoroughly contemporary. Cal Shakes' version succeeds in every aspect, from the acting, to the blocking (albeit minimal), to the ominous pile of dirt, to Gallagher's facial expressions, which add shape and emotional tenor to her words. It's no accident that her umbrella suddenly bursts into flames in the first act, and that, screaming, she tosses it at Willie. We are, after all, witnessing a marriage on the verge of immolation — and a woman who seems utterly combustible.
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