October 22, 2008

Bravura Performance Highlights Happy Days

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Samuel Beckett isn’t for everyone. His novels are vast, nearly un-peopled monologues, an obsessive-compulsive’s droning echo chambers, which depict the struggle to keep oneself upright and hygienic in a bleak, mundane, thoroughly contaminated solipsistic mindscape. Admittedly, I have tried to read several of Beckett’s novels, only to abandon them half-way. Each time I begin one anew, I start to feel like one of his characters: haggardly trying to go on with a dim resolve, keeping a faith that I know will fail me, waiting for something (anything!) to happen.
Beckett’s plays, especially when performed, can be riveting, however. For me, the same compulsive repetitions, obsessive monologues and images of a world reduced to a toothbrush and a pile of dirt are gripping when embodied by well-rehearsed gestures and the radiance of stage-lights. Happy Days, now playing through November 2nd downtown at the Kitchen Theater, is one of Beckett’s best, and Susannah Berryman, as Winnie, brings the text to simply astonishing — and astonishingly simple — life.
The nearly two-hour play is essentially a one-woman show. Winnie, a kind of dotty, zaftig old aunt in a polka-dotted sundress, goes through her daily ritual of taking items out and placing them back in her little bag. She is trapped in a giant mound of dirt up to her bosom. By the second act, the mound covers all but her face. The more she yammers to Willie, the lone other figure in th eplay, the more he ignores her.
Played with understated grim verve by R. M. Fury, Willie barely has any lines. His longest statement comes after Winnie asks him, “What’s a hog, Willie?” He shoots back, almost growling, “A castrated male swine, reared for slaughter.” As his responses become increasingly laconic to the point of non-existence, Winnie must fight back the notion that she has been talking to herself all these years. By the time Willie can reach out to her, she is too paralyzed to respond, literally trapped in her own nostalgia.
Lacking any ability to move about the stage, Berryman commands our attention through a nuanced repertoire of mercurial facial gestures and the precise cadence and inflection of her voice, which switches from sing-song to gruff, wistfully woe-is-me one instant and deadpan the next. She squints and puckers in a scrutinizing stupor every time she examines a new item from her bag. She conveys the childlike fascination of Winnie’s second childhood, when her memory has reduced her to the state of a one-year-old. Berryman proves she has as many tricks in her bag as Winnie has in hers.
The intimacy of the Kitchen Theater’s black box venue allows the audience to notice these details, so that Berryman’s slight intake of breath — a little reverse sigh, after her character ironically gives up trying to recall some “immortal lines” — can tell worlds. The performance is a tour de force, wherein the tragi-comic timing between each statement must be as exact as a crotchet of rest in a Haydn concerto, punctuating the lines with pathos and menace. The wordless spaces get broken by a hacking cough or the tiny grating sounds of filing down the nails. Each pause insinuates a poetic significance into the prosaic babble that preceded it; the autistic silence lets us hear the faint whistle of the void.
The direction of Jesse Bush succeeds precisely because it almost never makes its presence felt, allowing the words to shine through and achieving a rigorous fidelity to the text. I did notice one slight but significant deviation, perhaps due to technical reasons, which actually enhanced the play. When Winnie’s parasol bursts into flame under the scorching desert sun, Beckett calls for “smoke, flames if feasible.” Instead, the minimal glare of a red gel is used to signify the conflagration, causing the audience to imagine the desired catastrophe for themselves, as they’re mesmerized by a simple trick of light.
The set and costumes designed by Steve TenEyck and Nik Taylor were superbly crafted, starkly functional devices, real — perfectly all-too-real — rather than flimsy and symbolic. Winnie’s mound of actual sand is not only her costume, but most of the stage as well. It essentially becomes the unvoiced third character of the play, the silent elephant in the room. Another interesting choice was to have the image of a blazing sun come on a flatscreen television monitor in back of the actors rather than be projected on a scrim, unobtrusively updating the play’s essential theme of the projection and flatness of our inner landscapes.
If I have anything to quibble with, it was the duration of the pause before the blackouts that ended each act. Beckett’s stage directions state there should be a “long pause,” presumably to give the audience a moment of contemplative stillness in order to reabsorb the action before the lights go down or the curtain falls. Bush’s production cuts off the lights prematurely, giving both acts a cut-off feeling, as if the dramatic world had suddenly vanished but one second too soon. Then again, that may be the intended effect since the play insists that that each second is barely distinguished from the next except by the pressure by which we anticipate or recall its death; the life we live seeming always too slow, yet rushing by too quickly in the end. Ultimately, even after two-hours of a nearly catatonic monologue, I for one was left wanting more.