Elegance is probably not what comes to mind when you picture a woman buried up to her waist, babbling a torrent of words as she sweeps herself through yet another severely limiting day.
Nonetheless, director Jose Carrasquillo has put a lovely polish on Samuel Beckett’s daunting, fundamentally harsh “Happy Days.” In his visually striking production for WSC Avant Bard (formerly the Washington Shakespeare Company), Carrasquillo encases the heroine of this 1961 absurdist landmark not so much in earth as in her own skirts.
Beckett’s play can almost be summed up by its nearly unchanging image: An improbably chipper woman is stuck in a large mound, which by Act 2 is up to her neck. (How’s that for human progress?) When the acclaimed Irish actress Fiona Shaw toured “Happy Days” through the Kennedy Center a few years ago, the landscape she occupied was rocky and cruelly bright — a grim, hopeless wasteland.
Carrasquillo and set designer Tony Cisek go in the opposite direction here, with excellent results. A billboard of blue sky arcs behind the famous mound, which is made of the fabric of the garment that Winnie, the hapless woman, is wearing. (Marie Schneggenburger, no doubt working closely with Cisek, is the costume designer.) Clearly the gown was lovely once, and still is at the pale blue top, where actress Delia Taylor is perched for the whole of the show. But now it’s a trap, the dirty folds of fabric piling up like a once-vibrant, increasingly bleak history.
That’s a splendid setup for Taylor’s Winnie, whose quavering declarations carry just a whiff of the society dame. The role is a steep climb: Beckett’s language often consists of broken phrases as Winnie reminisces, or takes stock of the items in her large bag (toothbrush, mirror, gun), or thinks to check whether her grunting, crawling mate Willie is still lurking behind the mound. (He is; we see him once in a while.)
Taylor makes good clean sense of this. It sounds like small beer to compliment her performance as lucid, but it really is, word by difficult word. The play is very nearly a monologue, and Taylor makes fluid work of Winnie’s thoughts as the absurdly optimistic character does the work of putting on her brave face for the day. Her most expressive passages even come when poor Winnie is in it up to her neck; Taylor’s eyes dart left and right with hope and dread, and she knows where the gentle comedy is in the combination of wide smiles and brief grimaces.
Carrasquillo plays Willie, and he’s wonderful — casually disgusting in his habits and barely human in the way he slithers around the mound. His sense of tempo and image has a lot to do with making this “Happy Days” as good as it is.
It’s a hard nut, this play, and Carrasquillo and Taylor don’t quite crack it all the way. (Maybe no one does.) Beckett’s was the art of removal — eliminate plot, reduce character, fracture language, strip down the stage picture, etc. — and it can be difficult to hang with the terse remains minute by minute, listening for the philosophical clues. And yet this is a fine whirl at Beckett’s monument: smartly composed and unexpectedly gallant.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Jose Carrasquillo. Lights, Cory Ryan Frank; sound design, Elisheba Ittoop. About one hour and 50 minutes. Through Sept. 25 at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Call 888-841-2787 or visit www.wscavantbard.org.