Samuel Beckett’s HAPPY DAYS: Review Rundown

wpid-latimes.gifChalk this sighting up to the uncanny familiarity of Brooke Adams’ Winnie in Andrei Belgrader’s superb revival of “Happy Days,” now at the Theatre @ Boston Court. The unforced neighborliness of her performance allowed me to experience the play with new eyes — and spot the Winnies all around us.

This production — which features Broadway veteran and multiple Emmy winner Tony Shalhoub, Adams’ real-life husband, in the role of Willie, Winnie’s there-but-not-there life partner — preserves the universality of Beckett’s vivid stage metaphor while making it seem right at home in Southern California.

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la-weekly-logoThis production’s perfect blend of scorching pointlessness and humor approaches the slapstick of a Buster Keaton movie and also the pathos of tragedy, yet only flirts with — rather than plunges into — either extreme.

To call Andrei Belgrader’s direction “restrained” would be off-point: Shalhoub’s Willie blows his nose for a good minute and a half in an extended crescendo, and pops his head up and down from behind his ravine like a Jack-in-the-box. Yet circumventing such slapstick rhythms, Adams’ Winnie luxuriates in the time it takes to brush her teeth and probe her gums, and relishes the sight of a crawling insect — the only sign of non-human life.

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wpid-cropped-header22.jpgDirector Andrei Belgrader balances the grim, unforgiving quality of set and situation with just enough humor to keep the darkness from descending too soon. He also establishes a pace which makes room for the performers’ art and interpretation without stretching the necessarily repetitive script to a point where the audience disengages. This is a major element in this production’s success.

Takeshi Kata’s diorama-like set falls well into Beckett’s vision for the scene at hand. Melanie Watnick’s costumes evoke the barren, the bleached, the dirty and the worn. The thing looks right, which becomes particularly important in a play where setting is almost a character.

In short, this play – like many others, new and old, produced at Boston Court – asks an audience to absorb, discuss and ponder. “Happy Days” may be listed as a classic, but not one commonly done. It proves most certainly to be a tour de force for Adams, and worth watching if only for that. For all these reasons, go see this “Happy Days”. Then feel free to ask yourself and everyone around you what the answer is to that ending question. You may learn much in the process.

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wpid-screenshot_2014-07-02-23-47-47-1.pngAny actress who tackles the role of Winnie faces the nearly impossible task of keeping us interested and involved for two longish acts while she’s almost totally immobilized. But Adams rises to the occasion handsomely, keeping the opening night audience in thrall, by exploiting the comedy of Winnie’s ever-shifting moods, her unflagging spirits, and her ability to survive in increasingly desperate circumstances.

Shalhoub, as Willie, makes the absolute most of a seemingly constricted role: He says little, and is mostly invisible in Act 1. We see the back of his bald head, fringed with wispy white hair, we see his eyes peering over the edge of his pit, and we even get a glimpse of his bare backside, but we never see his face till almost the end of the play, when he emerges from his burrow dressed unaccountably as a down-at-heel banker, in cutaway coat, striped trousers, spats, and a battered top hat. He clowns shamelessly and zestfully, takes pratfalls, and seems to be enjoying himself immensely.

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hollywoodreporterlogoThis impeccable rendition of Beckett’s bleak evergreen harmonizes the Irish playwright’s craggy temperament with a peculiarly Southern California optimism.

Brooke Adams achieves her own originality of conception with a vocabulary of simple, deliberate gestures, meticulously delineated. Her sunny disposition is conceived in mannerisms recognizable to anyone in the audience, effectively suggesting that Winnies are all about us — and within us, too.

Adams performs efficiently and economically yet is utterly in touch with the demands of the play’s bleak vision. This is an all-American Winnie, and Takeshi Kata‘s set design, however inflexibly dictated by the text, allusively suggests a sense less of an Anglo-Irish seashore than a desert not so far off a freeway.

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glendale news pressFor a strikingly fresh, definitive revival of Samuel Beckett’s 1961 existential tragicomedy, “Happy Days,” look no further than Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena.

Directed by Andrei Belgrader, this superlative production features Brooke Adams as the literally earthbound, endearingly and determinedly optimistic Winnie, well-matched by her fellow stage and screen veteran (and husband) Tony Shalhoub in the nearly wordless and nearly unseen role of Winnie’s lowbrow mate, Willie.

In the post-apocalyptic bleakness of heat-blasted terrain (effectively rendered by scenic designer Takeshi Kata and light designer Tom Ontiveros as consciously theatrical yet all-too-believable in this time of extreme drought), Winnie, confined in the dirt, cultivates acceptance.

“Ah, well, seen enough,” she says, when wondering if she’s losing her sight.

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artsinlaBritish director Peter Hall once expressed that Beckett’s much-dissected work was “as much about mime and physical precision as about words”—an observation clearly buttressing the perception that the gossamer directorial vision of Andrei Belgrader, guiding an actor as fearless as Brooke Adams, has inspired something truly remarkable. With her body stuck in a massive mound of dirt from just below her chest throughout Act One, only Adams’s arms, her incredibly mobile face, a scattering of everyday items pulled from a large leather satchel, and a few scattered groans and mumbles emanating from the mostly out-of-sight Tony Shaloub as her husband Willie are available to help her keep our attention.

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stageandcinemaTheater of the Absurd can easily go awry if too much license is taken by a creative team. Beckett saw his intentions as inviolate, potentially devastated by irreverence or meddling, and anyone who’s seen a student production of Pirandello knows he was right to worry. Belgrader does not meddle, but neither does he prostrate himself. Adams, and her husband Tony Shalhoub as Willie, seem to be inventing this scenario in real time.

In bits scattered through the entire show, but especially in a phenomenal display of physical dexterity in the second act, Shalhoub provides the hideous counterpoint to the existentialist question: What if living means losing what makes life worth the effort? Well, as Winnie shows, that needn’t happen; no matter how much is taken from us, there’s always something for which to be grateful. The strain of sentimentalism that runs through Beckett’s work has never sounded so hip to me as now, because this Winnie made me want to live as vibrantly as she does.

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cultural weeklyJessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn performed this play together, as did French actors Madeleine Renaud and Jean-Louis Barrault. In each case the actors were married to each other. The production @ Boston Court also is performed by a married couple: Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub. This may seem like a trifling observation, but the intimacy of the offstage relationship has theatrical relevance. It helps to enhance the onstage chemistry.

The primary focus in this quasi-monologue is on Winnie, who talks more or less nonstop, while Willie says next to nothing in his own very eloquent way. Winnie speaks, she tells us, because the preternatural silence is too deafening. She focuses first on the big things, announcing at the start of her day, “No change. No pain. Wonderful thing that. Nothing like it,” followed at frequent intervals for a variety of reasons by a gratitude she’s intent on maintaining. “Great mercies, great mercies” is heard quite often.

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lifeinla logoAs Willie, Tony Shalhoub has a fantastic physicality. At times, he moves with such oafish fatigue and painstaking resolve that it’s hard not to wince when watching him. He is not seen for most of the play, but when he is he knows how to embody the desperation and the sloth of Willie—a less than charming combination—and his comic timing is exquisite.

But this really is Brooke Adam’s play. As Winnie, she is outstanding. What a challenge for an actress to be mostly buried, with her face straight out to the audience, unable to fully move, and still completely captivate an audience. She holds us in the palm of her hand and we never deter from her. She imbues Winnie with a sweetness that is infectious, and a sorrow that is heartbreaking. We empathize so much with her because, in a sense, she is us. And Ms. Adam’s is able to convey that humanity, that everyday quality with such precision and tender sadness that you’ll want to jump out of your seat and free her from her gravelly prison.

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onstagelosangelesAdams is a beauty. She impressed me as a Marilyn Monroe at first. Blonde and buxom. Frilly white dress. All she has to work with are the words and her arms. Her facial expressions, especially in Act Two are priceless. The black bag and her concern for Willie engage. In Act One all we really see of Willie is the back of his balding head and stringy hair, as he attempts to relieve the heat of the day and protect himself from the sun. Shalhoub’s elegant gestures: spare and complete, allow us to understand that great acting can still be accomplished silently by an actor who ‘gets it!’ A broken straw boater is carefully placed and then given a rakish tilt. It defines unfortunate Willie.

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examinerUnexpectedly poignant, Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” directed by Andrei Belgrader stars Brooke Adams in a tour de force performance and real-life husband, Tony Shaloub. This production of Beckett’s infrequently performed allegorical play explores the resilience of the human spirit on a desolate barren landscape as two souls struggle to connect.

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ustheaterBoth actress Brooke Adams and her husband Tony Shalhoub performed admirably as the doomed couple. For a short while in act one, I must admit, that I felt (like Los Angeles Times reviewer Charles McNulty) that the purposely slow pace of Adams’ actions and observations created a kind of tedium that, while perhaps conveying the emptiness of Winnie’s world, made the play itself a bit tedious. But quite soon thereafter I began to see her performance as a subtle indication of Winnie’s endless thought-processes, as revealing the mind behind her never-ending but constantly shifting fantasies of possibility that she daily invented in her delirium.

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stagehappeningslogoSo what to make of Beckett’s Winnie (as sunnily depicted by Brooke Adams)? Buried waist-deep in a huge mound that takes up the entire stage at Boston Court, Winnie’s smile belies the desperation of her circumstance.  It is astonishing that her difficulty is never remarked upon.  She seems to be oblivious to her surroundings as she creates a series of tasks, murmuring about the “many mercies” that make up her life. The presence of Willie (Tony Shalhoub), seems to provide her with the grounding that makes living bearable, although his mono-syllabic responses punctuating her running monologue seem hardly to penetrate.

Although a play where nobody moves and nobody complains might be wearing, this production hums along and never lets down. As impeccably directed by Andrei Belgrader, Adams embarks on her trajectory with a sunny disposition that never fails her all the while sinking deeper into the mound.

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One response to “Samuel Beckett’s HAPPY DAYS: Review Rundown

  1. Saw last night’s performance and we both were left speechless at the power of the play. I’ll never imagine another Winnie than Brooke Adams who captured such wistful optimism despite the limits of her environment. And Tony Shalhoub’s anaerobic climb in the second act as he struggles to reach towards Winnie projected the strain of Willie’s limits beautifully. Brilliantly directed play.

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