Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days at The Theatre @ Boston Court, Pasadena
Another Heavenly Day: Beckett in Pasadena
The real-life husband and wife team of Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub are playing the onstage husband and wife team of Winnie and Willie in Beckett’s Happy Days, which opened at the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena on September 13. Andrei Belgrader directs this riveting, hilarious, and ultimately heartbreaking production of one of Beckett’s masterpieces. Playing a Beckett heroine is a departure for Brooke Adams—she’s never acted in a Beckett play before—but she is perfectly at home in the lyric cadences and verbal pratfalls that characterize this punctuated monologue, this cri du coeur, this most challenging of roles. Tony Shalhoub, recognizable to most as the O.C.D. protagonist of the television series Monk plays Willie. It’s a brilliantly cast, expertly designed, and tenderly directed production.
Brooke Adams nails the winsome gravity and good humor of Winnie, who starts the play buried in dirt, but who is insouciant nonetheless. “Another heavenly day,“ Winnie remarks at the top of the play after she is abruptly awakened by an offstage bell. The sound design, by Robert Oriol, is apt and serves the play beautifully. We are then off to the races—linguistically, psychologically, and spiritually. Winnie’s mind and her mouth are fully engaged and wildly peripatetic even as she is physically immobilized—imbedded up to above her waist is Beckett’s stage direction—and behind her blazes a trompe l’oeil blue vista, a shimmering ongoing heat wave. Below her, Willie slathers on sun tan lotion to fight the blinding sun. It is so hot that eventually, Winnie’s “sun-shade” (her protective parasol) catches fire—she responds:
With the sun blazing so much fiercer down, and hourly fiercer, it is natural that things should go on fire never known to do so, in this way I mean, spontaneous like.… Shall I myself not melt in the end, or burn, oh I do not mean necessarily burst into flames, no, just little by little be charred to a black cinder, all this…visible flesh. Then again, did I ever know a temperate time?
It’s hard to not think about global warming in this context, especially when you’re watching the play from the heat-enfolded environs of Pasadena, 103 degrees at midday. That’s pure prescient Beckett there, and it’s also hard to pull off as a stage direction. The Boston Court production rises to the occasion. Winnie’s umbrella does catch fire, in the way that things catch fire after being magnified in the sun—with a slow smoky tendril where the heat has intensified. It seems this could be a solar flare meant for Winnie.
There are so many wonderful challenges and occasions for ingenuity in staging Beckett, whose panopticon intelligence oversees it all through his stage directions. His note on the appearance of the mound simply reads “Maximum simplicity and symmetry.” The set, by Takeshi Kata, keeps the focus on Winnie even as we hear and sometimes see her sidekick, Willie, nearby and underneath. Beckett is painstakingly (understatement!) precise in his stage directions. He manages to be both copiously descriptive and completely economical at the same time. Playwrights embed their tonal register in stage directions as direct addresses to the designers, the director, and the actors. Beckett’s work, when rendered passionately—even when that passion is mitigated by the ever-reduced circumstances and dwindling hopes of his characters—hits home. Belgrader has done a masterful job in this production of Happy Days.
It’s hard to not think about global warming in this context, especially when you’re watching the play from the heat-enfolded environs of Pasadena, 103 degrees at midday.
Winnie’s sensibility is so capacious—she’s a magical creature, fading in her beauty, aware of her bizarre predicament, but unwilling to spiral into self-pity. During the first act, when she still has the use of her arms, she goes through her handbag as a means of self-distraction. She finds momentary respite in her toothbrush, in what’s written on her toothbrush, in her magnifying glass, in her hat and hat pin, in her mirror, in her lipstick (“Ensign Crimson”), and even in her revolver (yes, she carries a gun). At one point she spots an emmet (an ant), and is overjoyed to see something else still alive and moving. She’s got a routine, a schedule, and she tries to keep to it—there’s a respite in the routine. Although none of us in the audience have been in that literal situation, there were sympathetic sighs, and appreciative laughs throughout the performance. Brooke Adams is eminently watchable. Her face is lovely—she is a woman over fifty in Los Angeles in the entertainment “industry” who has a real countenance, an expressive one! The close-up is generally the realm of the camera—but Brooke manages to capture the audience’s attention through her fully-embodied transformation into Winnie. She inhabits the long-suffering-long-stuck Winnie with both gusto and delicacy—it’s not an easy feat, but she manages to be ethereal even as she is earth-bound. We know Winnie through both her presence and through her language. The thought-hijinks of Winnie are so brave, and so delightful to witness. Winnie is an alchemist who turns a crappy situation (imbedded up to above her waist) into a narrative that defies paraphrasing.
The first act sets a solid foundation for a poignant second act. A lover of literature, Winnie searches her memory for an apt phrase, a combination of words that will match her situation, or change it, or at least make it bearable. “Here, all is strange,” she says, more than once. She’s mesmerizingly lovely but also funny in her ever-more reduced circumstances. The Irish have a term for this sort of humor—gallows humor, the ability to turn something morbid and something that you’re powerless over into a source of comedy. It’s the last resort of the victim. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that… Yes, yes, it's the most comical thing in the world,” as Beckett writes in Endgame. It is paramount for Winnie to avoid thinking too deeply about her situation, to stay optimistic—happy, even. While the play “belongs” to Winnie, there are multiple occasions for her companion, her beloved Willie, to interact as best he can. As Willie, Tony Shalhoub is mostly out of our sight, but his presence is palpable and is a resonant counterpoint to Winnie’s entreaties and ruminations. His appearance at the end of the play is pleasurably sad and deeply funny. The costumes, by Melanie Watnick, are perfect: timelessly-Irish-lace-curtain-looking, like faded tea-stained doilies Throughout the play the lighting, is a character unto itself, masterfully designed by Tom Ontiveros.
Winnie closes the play with: “Oh, this is a happy day, this will have been another happy day! …. After all….. So far.” She sings along with her music box and the play ends in this abeyance of Willie reaching for Winnie while we as audience remain, bereft and enchanted, simultaneously.
Samuel Beckett’s plays have been successfully performed in war zones as well as on Broadway, at disaster sites, and at the Royal Court Theatre. His plays are performed at elite colleges, and his work plays equally well at Maximum Security Prisons. A Brooklyn theater company called Creative Time did Waiting for Godot in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They performed it in the ninth ward, when the streets looked post-apocalyptic. They also did a performance in an abandoned house in Gentilly. They advertised the production with flyers that used only the first stage directions:
A country road.
They offered free tickets and gumbo. And these productions brought a fragmented community together.
Why did Beckett resonate so profoundly in post-Katrina New Orleans? Molly Peterson, a public radio reporter who saw the production told me “Waiting is all that anyone in New Orleans did after Katrina. Godot was about all the tricks that you play in your head while you’re waiting for help that may or may not arrive. And if it does arrive it might not be helpful after all. This play spoke to everyone in the audience. And it was funny. And the funniness made the pain better.” Doing Beckett in a disaster area, or any place of hopelessness, is strikingly appropriate. There is something that seamlessly connects these realms to the world that Beckett creates, or rather, taps into—it depends on how you experience Beckett.
Another famous production of Beckett-in-extremis was held in the San Quentin prison. Rick Cluchey was serving time for armed robbery in 1957 when this famous performance of Waiting for Godot, directed by Herbert Blau, with Alan Mandell and other actors from the San Francisco Actors Workshop, played the prison for one transformative night. The experience influenced Rick deeply and he ended up eventually overseeing an ongoing theater project (with Allan Mandell, for the first six years) that turned convicts into theater converts. Rick has spent his post-prison life in theatre. I asked Rick if he’d had any theater experience before seeing and then doing Beckett—he said that he’d never set foot in a theater before—“not even to rob one.” Beckett’s work spoke directly to Rick Cluchey. As it did to the Sarajevans in Susan Sontag’s production in that country, yet another instance of Beckett seen beyond the expected terrain. How supple is Beckett? We know that he speaks to the highbrow audiences in London and New York, and he provides the emulsion to bring hope to the hopeless. How many realms can he cross? How much does he really have the capacity to transcend and to connect?
One such test is that Beckett is being produced—successfully and repeatedly—in the Los Angeles area. This is the second production of Beckett’s work that I’ve seen in Pasadena recently (A Noise Within, another Pasadena-based theater, did a fine production of Endgame last season). After the performance at Boston Court, Artistic Director Jessica Kubzansky moderated a discussion with the audience and revealed that she had asked Andrei Belgrader if there was a project that he’d like to do—and he said he wanted to do Happy Days with Brooke Adams as Winnie. Belgrader had directed Tony Shalhoub in a production of Godot in Boston, and Kubzansky had seen it. So there’s serendipity in this production, and it’s a testament to Beckett’s work that he’s done with such alacrity and insight in the Los Angeles area, of all places.