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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Happy Days



Playwright: Samuel Beckett

Venue:  Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, 3955 Regent Circle, Colorado Springs.

Company:  Theatreworks

Running Time: 90 minutes (includes 10 minute intermission).

Date of Performance:  Friday, March 27, 2015.

For those who were fans of the TV show from the 1970s and 1980s Happy Days, the Theatreworks Happy Days is an entirely different production.  It does not feature Richie Cunningham and The Fonz, and it is not set in Milwaukee.  And that's just the start of how different these two productions with the exact same title are.

For those who are unfamiliar with Samuel Beckett, he was an Irish born writer, poet, and playwright who lived in Paris and wrote in both English and French.  He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969.  His plays are part of an avant garde movement in the mid 20th century called Theater of the Absurd, and were loosely related to existential philosophers.  Common threads in Theater of the Absurd plays include exposing what happens when life has no meaning or purpose, and the breakdown of language and communication that results from the emptiness of life.

The Happy Days you will see at Theatreworks is a Samuel Beckett script written in 1961.  It’s a strange story; the main character, Winnie (Lynne Hastings) is being swallowed up by a mound of indistinct dirt.  Her husband, Willie (played by her real life husband, David Hastings) is with her but disconnected.  He lives in a hole in the dirt pile.  He rarely speaks, and rarely leaves his hole.  

What follows is difficult to describe; perhaps the best way to think of it is a slow descent into quicksand in a world with no context.  There is no home, no job, no family beyond Winnie and Willie.  There is only a pile of earth, slowly swallowing up Winnie.  It is a strange situation, in which Winnie's normal daily routine is absurd.  Winnie awakens every day to a horrendously piercing alarm, and then has nothing to do all day.  She passes time brushing her teeth, fixing her hair, putting on her hat, and doing a routine that is meaningless.  Every day is the same.  Each fraction of a second is little different from the next.  It is hot.  Bright.  And timeless.

If you’ve every watched a video of dancers, say at a wedding, watch it again, but turn off the sound.  What you will see is dancers moving, seemingly at random, with no discernible meaning.  They look like they’ve taken leave of their senses.  That is how Happy Days plays out on the stage.  Where life has no purpose, no context, our routines are absurd.  We are dancing without music.

Happy Days is a play where the audience is unlikely to walk out thinking that they “like” the show.  You’re not supposed to “like” it.  You’re supposed to think about it.  You should leave asking yourself the important questions raised in the script.  Does my life have meaning?  What is my purpose in life?  Can I adequately communicate my plans, my purpose, and my goals to those who matter to me?

Happy Days gives us a peak into the bleakness of permanent loss of purpose.  However, Beckett doesn’t offer us a solution to Winnie and Willie's dreadful circumstances.  He puts a revolver on the stage, which is all too often an easy solution for those in despair.  Whether Winnie or Willie should use that revolver is a question left to the audience.  Each of us must seek our own solutions or face the bleak, endless suffering of a meaningless existence.

Theatreworks has taken an artistic risk with Happy Days.  The reclusive Beckett was unconcerned about commercial success (he gave away the money he received for his Nobel Prize), and other than Waiting for Godot, Beckett is unlikely to sell a lot of tickets.  Theatreworks' risk taking should be richly rewarded; Happy Days is a first class production of a provocative script.  It is generally true that the most popular plays are also the least rewarding and the most forgettable.  Happy Days proves the corollary to the rule.  It’s not the most prominent of Beckett’s works and it will never be a smash hit, but it’s very rewarding and difficult to forget.
David Hastings (Willie), Lynne Hastings (Winnie).

Lynne Hastings as Winnie is brilliant; she is only seen as part of a pile of debris but she glows at the pinnacle of that debris.  It’s a difficult role; she is only seen from the waist up.  Her movement is extremely limited; she must act only with her head, face, and arms.  By the second act, she is limited to her head and face.  The audience focuses quickly on her head and face, where Hastings delivers Beckett’s words and Winnie’s expressions with an unexpected confidence.  That Beckett’s words are often meaningless babble makes Hasting’s performance all the more amazing.  

Winnie’s husband Willie has a much smaller role, but David Hastings makes the most of it, grunting, groaning, and clawing his way through the emptiness of life.  

Floyd Tunson's scenic design is perfectly suited to Beckett's script; minimal but functional.  Director Murray Ross has faithfully recreated Beckett's tone here, bringing the emptiness of life to, well, life.  

Beckett shows us the consequences of living a life without purpose, but he offers no remedies.  His point, presumably, is that we each have to find our own purpose.  For some, that will be a faith in a creator and an afterlife.  For others, it may be charitable works that benefit the unfortunate among us.  For many, it is family and career that gives us a purpose.  Whatever your purpose, Beckett seems to teach us that such a purpose is essential.  Without it, life is hardly worth the effort. 

Happy Days is not exactly entertainment.  It’s a thoughtful, serious work of art that doesn’t come along very often.  This is a show that will question your basic assumptions about both theater and life.  It’s provocative, serious theater.  

Theatreworks has bravely presented Happy Days to us, and that’s an artistic decision rather than a commercial one.  Colorado Springs is fortunate to have a resident company that puts art ahead of revenue.  Regardless, I suspect that Happy Days may be a commercial as well as an artistic triumph for Theatreworks.  Art doesn't have to be a financial drain, and Happy Days may bring some very happy days to the Box Office at Theatreworks.

Richie Cunningham and The Fonz of the Happy Days TV show inhabited an alternate reality that never really existed.  That they needed no profound understanding of their place in the world is naive and misleading.  We all need a focus, a direction and a purpose.  

Beckett’s script, by contrast, is an alternate reality that requires us to think about our purpose.  It speaks to everyone who has ever struggled with the meaning of his or her life.  We often spend more time planning an annual vacation than considering the most basic and essential questions about our lives.  Happy Days will make you pause and give some serious thoughts to those basic questions.

Sometimes theater gives us what we want; other times it gives us what we need.  Happy Days gives us what we need.  That alone is a compelling reason to get yourself to Theatreworks before April 5.


NOTES:

This show is probably appropriate for all ages, but not recommended.  The dialog is alternately profound and pointless, which would not work well for those under 16 or so.  

Do you know what your purpose in life is?  Can you describe it?  Isn’t it about time you figure this out?  Even if you don’t get a ticket to Happy Days, I encourage everyone to give some thought to the direction, focus, and purpose that makes your life meaningful.

PHOTO CREDITSTheatreworks.

TICKETS HERE:  

This show will close on April 5, 2015.

PRE/POST SHOW DINING RECOMMENDATION:

Salt Grass Steak House, 1405 Jamboree Drive, Colorado Springs.  We stopped in before the show, and when we arrived around 5:30 PM, we were seated immediately.  By 6:00 the place had filled up and people were waiting for tables.  Happy Hour is 3:00-7:00; Salt Grass closes at 10:00 PM on Friday and Saturday.  The prime rib was excellent, as was the Grilled Shrimp and Chicken combo.  Service was outstanding.  It’s about a 10-15 minute drive to and from the theater, weather and traffic permitting.

CREATIVE TEAM:

Director:  Murray Ross

Lighting and Sound Designer:  Alex Ruhlin

Set Designer:  Floyd D. Tunson

Costume Designer:  Amy Haines

Stage Manager:  Elise Jenkins


CAST:

Winnie:  Lynne Hastings

Willie:  David Hastings


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