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You can’t talk about Happy Days, Samuel Beckett’s 50-year-old Rubik’s Cube of a play, without talking about The Mound. Enter a theater where its performance is imminent, and a giant anthill immediately floods your vision.
“Expanse of scorched grass rising centre to low mound” is how the playwright renders it in his famously clipped prose. “Gentle slopes down to front and either side of stage. Back an abrupter fall to stage level. Maximum of simplicity and symmetry.”
Stare a second longer and you’ll notice the woman plugged waist-deep in the hill. This is Wynnie, a middle-aged, cheerful, indefatigable sort whom you might say has her head in the sand if that weren’t, by Act Two, the only part of her that isn’t.
“Another heavenly day,” she begins.
What are we to do with all this?
WSC Avant Bard—-the company that offered its first 21 seasons under the pun-free moniker Washington Shakespeare Company—-rings in its 22nd with director Jose Carrasquillo’s honorable, earnest whack at this problem play to end all problem plays, an abstruse near-monologue wherein the main performer—-Delia Taylor, doing heroic, nuanced work—-can barely move. (Imagine 127 Hours shorn of its beginning, ending, or assorted flashbacks.)
As interpreted by scenic designer Tony Cisek, The Mound is a gigantic tarpaulin of dirty gold with the texture of a paper ball, wrapped around Winnie like a 12-foot-tall hoop skirt. Are we to infer Winnie is a victim of gender-based oppression? The National Theatre of Great Britain’s production, which starred Fiona Shaw and played the Kennedy Center in 2007, used a harsher, more barren environment, lodging Winnie at the peak of conical rock formation. Mound design is probably the area in which the freedom for one production of Happy Days to diverge from another is greatest.
Winnie’s husband Willie (played by Carrasquillo) is around, but he’s heard more than he’s seen, and he moans more than he speaks. Beckett was the stage’s ultimate reductionist, and here he dispatches with narrative entirely save for the moment early in Act Two when the mound comes two arms and (approximately) two feet nearer to swallowing Winnie whole.
What Winnie has in common with, say, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when the latter find themselves outgunned and -numbered, is a refusal to discuss or even acknowledge the awfulness of her predicament. Instead she draws upon her robust literary education, offering variants on the phrase “What is that wonderful line?” as she calls up kernels of Milton or Shakespeare or Chaucer to give some filigree to her grim circumstances. Her most joyful moment comes when her dessicated husk of a spouse manages to drag himself into her field of vision one final (?) time before his strength fails him and he rolls down that interminable hill.
According to the production’s program, Beckett wrote Happy Days in response to his wife’s request for something more cheerful after Krapp’s Last Tape. I haven’t tried very hard to source this claim, mostly because I don’t want to believe it. Did Beckett like his wife? Is this thing an extended physical metaphor for the way life contracts once you’re past the middle bit? A suggestion of marriage-as-confinement?
This Rorschach-test quality alone would make the play worth keeping in circulation. Rigorous and severe, this production is as easy to admire as it is difficult to love. Which probably means they got it right.
At Artisphere through Sept. 25. Photo by Dru Sefton