Disembodied Voice

Samuel Beckett's Happy Days returns to the Jungle Theater

If plays were pitched like movies, there might never have been a Samuel Beckett. With his gaunt, haggard features and penchant for writing in French, the Irish writer would have utterly flummoxed Hollywood. One imagines Beckett seated in a small office in Studio City trying desperately to explain the plot of his play, Happy Days, to a half-dozen uncomprehending producers.

"So your script is about a woman who is buried up to her waist in sand?" one asks. "All she does is fish around in a large bag, pulling out items like toothpaste and a pistol?"

Lines in the sand: Claudia Wilkens emotes in place
Lines in the sand: Claudia Wilkens emotes in place

"No," Beckett replies. "She also talks to herself, trying to remember the lyrics to old songs and chastising herself whenever her optimism lags."

Another producer interrupts, bewildered. "There's only one other character in this play?" he asks, "and we barely get to see him? He crawls in and out of a small hole in the ground, and hardly ever speaks?"

"Yes," Beckett says. "But he sometimes reads out loud from an old newspaper."

A third producer chews on a thumbnail thoughtfully. "It's weird," he says at last, "but it might make for a hell of a first act. What do we do in act two?"

"We bury the woman up to her head, and then pretty much repeat the events of act one," Beckett answers.

"What are you saying?" one says, uncomprehending. Another answers for Beckett: "I think he's saying that there is not going to be a lot of movement in this production."

Indeed, Happy Days might be one of the most static scripts ever written. The play is eerie in its stillness, as though Beckett knew producers (Hollywood and otherwise) would be confused by it, and so simply went from theater to theater burying actors in sand and leaving them behind to recite his perplexing, elliptical dialogue. "We spent about an hour trying to dig the actor out," a producer might explain to a theater's board of directors, "but by then she started to attract an audience, and so we thought, to hell with it."

However Claudia Wilkens ended up waist-deep in dirt on the stage of the Jungle Theater, she seems determined to stay--and even return, now and again (she first appeared in the role at the Jungle in 1991). Director Bain Boehlke, perhaps sensing that it would be a waste of time to dig her out, has instead spent his time rooting through the text of Beckett's plays, pulling out of the playwright's meandering language everything from high comedy to surprising pathos. We will never know how Beckett's character wound up buried in sand, but Boehlke treats the situation as one would a puppet show. If Wilkens cannot move about the stage, she certainly can flop her arms about and make faces at the audience, and she does so with great intensity. Every raised eyebrow takes on astonishing significance, and the slightest gestures turn into epic dramas in this world of suppressed motion.

In fact, the only thing that moves besides Wilkens' face and--briefly--upper torso is actor Stephen D'Ambrose, whose wasted and straw-hatted head appears occasionally, mutters, and then disappears again. He scrambles along the set like a poisoned insect, succeeding at nothing but breathing hard and twitching as Wilkens calls out, "This will be a happy day!"

Although the play ends after act two, we leave the theater expecting that if we were to sneak back late at night, we would find Wilkens still buried in the sand, this time head down with her feet poking out of the surface, still reciting muffled dialogue. And Boehlke, to his credit, would be listening and opining aloud that there were real dramatic possibilities to this scene.

 

 
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