Stage Struck Review

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Tag Archives: Samuel Beckett

Beckett’s Woman: “Happy Days” at The Theatre @ Boston Court

This play has been extended through October 19. Marc Cardiff will step in for Tony Shalhoub during the extension.

Happy Days 1

When students study Samuel Beckett, it is almost always by reading or seeing “Waiting for Godot,” undoubtedly the playwright’s definitive masterpiece. As such, people go into a production of “Godot” with a certain knowing – a certain expectation of what may be found there. In other words, when it comes to Beckett, the potential for real surprise – something he was initially known for – comes from his less-produced, or at least less well known work.

At The Theatre at Boston Court, the playwright’s “Happy Days” offers just such satisfying newness. Of course, it isn’t new, and yet though it was first produced in 1961, yes it is. Inspired by Cyril Cusack’s wife, Maureen, who suggested after “Krapp’s Last Tape” that Beckett “write a happy play,” it approaches much which still applies in the disaster which seems to be our modern society.

The play which rises from that request by Maureen Cusack bases itself in utter despair, which the playwright felt only a woman would be able to face with dauntless cheerfulness. Whether or not this is a good thing, or any definition of happy, is open to interpretation.

From the start, we meet Winnie – a woman already sunk to past the waist in the earth of a desolate place. Her husband Willie is in a cave somewhere behind her. He speaks little and usually somewhat unintelligibly. Still, knowing he is there gives this rather overbearing woman the strength to talk herself into buoyance, even as her situation becomes more and more starkly bleak.

Of course, that’s only the superficial view. The toughness and indefatigable coping skills of a woman in the face of apocalypse, the constant stream of repetitive babble even when sleeplessness and hopelessness have given it all a grim undertone, say many complex things. There is much about social standards, marriage, and the elemental nature of womanhood, all to be gleaned as the evening matures.

Winnie is often considered one of the great woman’s roles of the modern theater, and at the Boston Court, Brooke Adams is very much up to the task. In what is essentially a two-act monologue, done while unable to move anything but one’s arms and face, Adams takes us from cheery optimism, determinedly gauging each day as a “very happy day” to all that comes after: the gradual loss of faith and of actual, as opposed to imagined, hope as she sinks further and further into an overwhelming reality. Happy Days 2

Willie, an often thankless part made comical and quizzical by Tony Shalhoub (Adams’ husband), makes an important counterpoint to Winnie. In his grunts and monosyllabic commentary, Willie refuses to live up to expectations, or to answer when spoken to, even appears at times to have disappeared or died. Though the part proves minimal in scripted utterings, it is Willie who creates the question with which the play ends – a question even Beckett determinedly claimed he did not know the answer to.

Director Andrei Belgrader balances the grim, unforgiving quality of set and situation with just enough humor to keep the darkness from descending too soon. He also establishes a pace which makes room for the performers’ art and interpretation without stretching the necessarily repetitive script to a point where the audience disengages. This is a major element in this production’s success.

Takeshi Kata’s diorama-like set falls well into Beckett’s vision for the scene at hand. Melanie Watnick’s costumes evoke the barren, the bleached, the dirty and the worn. The thing looks right, which becomes particularly important in a play where setting is almost a character.

In short, this play – like many others, new and old, produced at Boston Court – asks an audience to absorb, discuss and ponder. “Happy Days” may be listed as a classic, but not one commonly done. It proves most certainly to be a tour de force for Adams, and worth watching if only for that. For all these reasons, go see this “Happy Days”. Then feel free to ask yourself and everyone around you what the answer is to that ending question. You may learn much in the process.

What: “Happy Days” When: Through October 12, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34, with student and senior discounts Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org

When All is Lost, What is All?: “Endgame” at A Noise Within

Geoff Elliott and Jeremy Rabb in "Endgame" at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Geoff Elliott and Jeremy Rabb in “Endgame” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

In the trio of plays being done in repertory at A Noise Within this fall, the common theme is loss. “Pericles” loses his family. The Actor in “The Guardsman” loses faith in his wife. And then there is “Endgame,” the nihilistic Samuel Beckett play in which – quite literally – all is lost. Typical of absurdism, and certainly of Beckett, the how and the what are left fairly ambiguous, and the ends don’t tie up neatly, but the discussion of nothingness is, to a great extent, the point.

I have spent much of my life entertained by absurdism. The denial of societal norms, and the innate sense of the ridiculousness of life itself – aligned as it is with the inability to wrap anything up in a neat package – has appealed to me as an intellectual challenge, and sometimes as a source of wry, at times inexplicable humor.

Scholars will tell you absurdism informs the intellectual spirit of the mid-20th century. War, Fascism, Stalinism, and all of the many social movements and scientific expansions which seemed a denial of the foundations of western culture created a sense of purposeless and doom only enhanced by the nuclear age. Those who wrote of this, saw humanity as devoid of any real meaning – completely absurd, in the most vacant sense. This shines particularly brightly in “Endgame,” which works to codify humans in the era of nothingness.

The plot, such as it is, concerns Hamm, a man left blind and incapacitated by whatever it is which has destroyed everything. In trash cans near his wheelchair -ish throne exist his mother and father. Shuffling about the room is his servant, Clov. All is decay. Nothing has a point. Hamm and Clov discuss whether to live or die with dispassion. Empathy is gone. Habit defines purpose. There is no reason to do what they do. Nothing will improve, and the idea of anything moving forward is so terrifying they dare not let a flea live to procreate. Their greatest communal fear is that they should in some way mean something.

Director Geoff Elliott has set the play in the appropriately timeless otherwhere, redolent of decay, and crafted the stage patterns with a formative patterning which enhances the theme. His Hamm (he plays the lead as well) sits on a kind of throne on casters, immobilized by weight. As such, he never really leaves center stage.

There, his steady presence and rarely changing delivery, while epitomizing the senselessness of this particular kind of end of days, becomes a drone which proves as lulling as it does profound. It is admittedly difficult to give life to a character trapped in a chair – one of Beckett’s more theatrical points. Still, this calm approach to nothingness – when voice is all one can reach out with – should not be so devoid of emotion that the listener disconnects completely, even in a Beckett play.

Jeremy Rabb’s Clov is, by contrast, fully realized in his calm despair, even while his modulations are appropriately curtailed. And he does have the advantage of movement. His way of walking thus helps codify the undercurrent of the play. Rather than moving “stiffly,” as is often done, he has a fascinating, floor-bound shuffle and a pre-ordained set of paths which speak to the treadmill of life as profoundly as any other element. Indeed, as this movement winds down, it defines the vacancy which will come.

Mitchell Edmonds gives a particular bitter humor to Nagg, Hamm’s father occasionally produced from the trash can. Likewise, Jill Hill’s comparatively brief appearance from the other can as Hamm’s mother Nell keeps to the flavor and the rhythm of the play.

But Rabb and his interaction with Elliott are the essentials. In this they are aided by Jeanine A Ringer’s dry and angular backdrop-like set, and most specifically by the carefully crafted spaces created by Karyn D. Lawrence’s lighting design. Even in nothingness one must have focus, and that is what Lawrence’s subtlety achieves.

As with much of Beckett’s work, plot and character do not tell you what this play is about. As modern society debates the fall of empires and the questionable meanings of life at present, it is good to look at a play about, well, nothing. And in Beckett’s hands that nothing says much about what has been, or may be lost.

As such, the three plays in repertory at A Noise Within create a full circle of human commentary, from the legendary and seemingly gods-driven misfortunes of a classical king, through the petty distrusts of the wealthy and famous, to the end of all human purpose. Quite a ride.

What: “Endgame” When: in repertory through November 23, 8 p.m. November 8, 9, 22 and 23, 7 p.m. November 3 and 17, 7:30 p.m. November 14, and 2 p.m. November 3, 9, 17 and 23. Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: single tickets from $34 Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Worth the Waiting: a glorious “Waiting for Godot” at the Taper

Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern in the Mark Taper Forum's excellent "Waiting for Godot" (photo: Craig Schwartz)

Back in the early 1980s, I was substituting in a local high school when a young lady I knew dashed in. “I have five minutes before my next class. Can you explain ‘Waiting for Godot’ to me?” I can tell that story in almost any company and have people laugh. Even those who don’t know “Waiting for Godot” know enough about it to consider the question ridiculous. Indeed, playwright Samuel Beckett, in keeping with the absurdism which crept into theater with this play, absolutely refused to do any explaining of the thing himself.

The play is, essentially, about waiting – a waiting where, as the first line pronounces, “Nothing can be done.” Often times, this becomes a tedious exercise in that process, but not at the Mark Taper Forum. There an exquisite production elevates the play to something like a wry dream – an essential look at human character, and the elemental humor and pathos of existence.

Central to this success are the duo of Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern, whose connection as the waiting men Estragon and Vladimir becomes a living thing. Their constant intertwining of line, of mood and even of whimsy gives an energy to the piece. This, in turn, keeps one connected to character and content in a play which has lots of both in place of a plot.

The tale, such as it is, is of two men – longtime wanderers – who have been told they must wait for the arrival of a man named Godot in a rather bleak spot on the landscape. So, they wait. Each day, as it ends, a boy (LJ Benet) arrives to say Godot will come tomorrow without fail. It is a fool’s waiting, but it is required, and so this is what the men do. The owner of the land harumphs by, accompanied by a nearly animalistic slave. Still, the men wait.

Hugo Armstrong’s beastly, inarticulate and beleaguered Lucky and James Cromwell’s worldly and pompous Pozzo add to the mood and tone with a fascinating and disturbing physicality. Still it is Mandell’s sighing, fatalistic Estragon and McGovern’s negotiating, honor-bound Vladimir who make the piece as compelling as it is. The tight and active direction of Michael Arabian keeps the thing from devolving, as it sometimes has, into a kind of costumed panel discussion. That vitality proves key.

So does the absolutely remarkable, Dadaist set by John Iacovelli and by Brian Gale, whose projections and lighting effects tie in with the set itself brilliantly. Indeed, be sure you are seated early enough to see the Dali-like shadows which play upon the backdrop before the show begins. It sets just the tone necessary to start sweeping the audience into the mood.

I will admit leaving the theater gleeful. This production is what I always hoped “Waiting for Godot” could be. One thinks of those exceptional plays and playwrights who have arrived since (Suzan-Lori Parks and her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Top Dog/Underdog” come particularly to mind) and been given permission to have characters exist and be explorable, rather than having to live inside a story line. The legacy of this play cannot be overstated. It is a delight to go back and see, in such a powerful production, that initial inspiration.

As for the student who asked me to explain the unexplainable in five minutes, so long ago? The answer was – obviously – no. I have no idea how the essay she was supposed to write in her next class came out, but she was furious at not having a definitive answer. Don’t expect one from me now, either. That’s for you to explore for yourself, after you go see this particularly articulate incarnation of the thing.

And you should go. It would be difficult to find a better rendition.

What: “Waiting for Godot” When: Through April 22, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $65 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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