Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days

Happy+Days

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett. Photo from http://www.openeyetheatre.org

As the curtain lowers (yes, lowers) at the beginning of Open Eye Figure Theatre‘s production of Happy Days, even those audience members who are familiar with the play are somewhat surprised. There is just no way to see a play that features a woman buried up to her waist in sand and her mostly-monosyllabic partner without feeling some variety of surprise.

Here’s the thing about Happy Days: it’s weird. There is a very good reason that Samuel Beckett’s plays are part of a genre called the theatre of the absurdHappy Days is, in a word, absurd. There isn’t a plot in the traditional “beginning, middle, and end” sense of the word; mostly, the audience witnesses Winnie (aforementioned woman buried up to her waist in sand) grooming herself, sorting through her bag, debating whether or not today will be “another happy day”, and generally having a one-sided stream-of-consciousness conversation with her monosyllabic companion, Willie.

In college, I studied Beckett’s plays extensively. As a native English speaker who moved to France and wrote mostly in French, Samuel Beckett was a favourite subject of study for my professors in their eagerness to impress upon us English-speaking French majors the relevance of the language, even to non-native speakers. I read Happy Days in both English and French multiple times, and always wondered what on earth it was supposed to be about and who would ever want to sit through such a “weirdo play” (this is actually what is written on a post-it note on the front of my copy of the play, incidentally).

Well, seeing the show performed is an entirely different experience to reading it, of course. Director Michael Evan Haney brings Samuel Beckett’s absurdity to life in a way that is both absurd and realistic, both humourous and sad. Much of this has to do with Amy Warner‘s performance as Winnie. This is a beast of a show, and the actor playing Winnie carries the vast majority of the load on their shoulders, as Winnie’s absent-minded ramblings have to keep the audience’s attention for a full hour in act 1 and about 40 minutes in act 2 without even the luxury of being able to move about the stage. By the second act, in fact, Winnie can only move her face, and even in Open Eye‘s small space, this is no mean feat.

There were moments when, I’ll admit, I sighed silently and wondered how far off intermission could possibly be; I felt slightly restless and impatient for something to happen. But here’s the big question: is that a flaw in the play, or is that a sign of Beckett’s strong writing? Ideally, a playwright can show rather than tell what he/she wants to get across, and wasn’t I feeling exactly how Winnie must feel, trapped in the sand, without any change in routine or scenery?

This brings me to the second question my Beckett-studying college-aged self asked: who would ever want to sit through this? Nothing happens and it doesn’t even make much sense. Well, it does, in that general ideas about life and death and relationships get across, but it doesn’t “make sense” in that there isn’t a major conflict or storyline; there are just two characters and the sand. So, who would want to sit through this? Lots of people, if the full house on opening night is anything to go by. What is the draw? Well, it something different, that’s for sure, and if you feel like you’ve seen everything the theatre world has to offer, maybe it’s time to investigate some Beckett. It’s also a really strong production, and Amy Warner truly is remarkable to watch, with her wildly expressive face and her exquisite timing. It’s also an excellent occasion to challenge your notions of the necessity of plot to narrative structure. However, if you really, really like your “exposition-conflict-climax-resolution” pattern, this isn’t the play for you, and this writer thinks you shouldn’t feel bad about that.

Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days plays March 4-19, 2016 at Open Eye Figure Theatre, 506 E 24th Street, Minneapolis, MN. Recommended ages 16+. Tickets $15 (students/seniors) to $20, with pay-as-able tickets always available at www.openeyetheatre.org or (612) 874-6338.

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