By Patsy Isenberg
The Rep made a surprising choice for the first play of the 2021-22 season. It was the absurdist comedy, “Happy Days,” a two-act play by Samuel Beckett, written in 1961.
Theatre of the Absurd
“Theater that seeks to represent the absurdity of human existence in a meaningless universe by bizarre or fantastic means,” is how Webster dictionary defines theater of the absurd. It was a surprising choice because some may have expected a popular or well-known play for The Rep’s first one in more than 18 months.
A few people even remarked that they wondered if it had something to do, incongruously, with the TV show of the same name that ran from the mid 70s to the mid 80s.
The Rep’s website uses the phrase “reimagine what theatre can be …” and is counting on Flint and other theater goers to challenge themselves.
Beckett’s “Happy Days” is set in a meaningless, bizarre and fantastic universe. The setting is never explained and there are only two characters, Winnie and Willie. Winnie has almost all of the dialogue. Willie says very little, but is an integral part of the action.
Absurdist theater got its start post WWII and Beckett’s absurdist plays are some of the early examples. One of last season’s plays at The Rep, “The Chairs,” by Eugène Ionesco was also considered an absurdist comedy.
The cast and the action
Teacher of theatre at the University of Michigan -Flint and an actor who has taken on many roles in The Rep’s past productions, Janet Haley, played the part of Winnie. She was amazing. Winnie talks constantly and utters seemingly every thought she has.
A member of the audience while outside during intermission was overheard using the term “stream of consciousness” which does describe Winnie’s dialogue. She occasionally reminisces about the past and talks about her daily routine while buried up to her waist in a mound of dirt. She remains cheerful and has a bag of personal items she pulls out to begin her days after an alarm wakes her up in the mornings.
Willie, Winnie’s husband, played by Rico Bruce Wade, is often seen from behind, if at all, and only reluctantly utters responses to questions from Winnie which she verbally and with good humor prods out of him. That is, until the end of Act Two. when he painfully pulls himself out of his own “hole” in the earth and crawls across the mound of dirt toward Winnie, who’s now buried up to her neck. That scene was excruciating (for the audience) and very well done by Wade.
After the play, people gathered in the lobby to congratulate the players, as is customary, when they come out of their dressing rooms. It’s interesting that when Wade came into the lobby (he arrived first) he was very talkative, thanking everyone for coming and interested what everyone who saw the play thought, shaking hands and all, not like the character he played. When Haley came out, in contrast, she was rather quiet, not at all like Winnie.
It’s hard to say it was enjoyable but it definitely got a strong reaction. That is what art should do — and like a lot of powerful art, it was hard to stop thinking about.
Creative team and theme as it relates to today
The set design was impressive. It was simply uneven hilly mounds of dirt littered with plastic bottles and an occasional weed or errant clump of grass poking through. And there was a backdrop of a vague, wispy, clouded sky which sometimes had subtle changes of color to indicate time of day. The set designer was Scott Penner from Chicago.
There were only two costumes. since it was assumed that neither character was able to change their clothes. It was apparent that creativity went into those two costumes though. Hats were changed or put on at times though. The costume designer was Katherine Nelson who’s worked on Rep productions in the past and works primarily in Michigan.
But the director, Kathryn Walsh from Chicago, took on a big challenge with this, as did the actors, and succeeded very well. Walsh also directed “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” (also featuring Haley) and “The Wolves” for The Rep in seasons past.
In the director’s note offered in the playbill, Walsh has a lot to say about directing “Happy Days.” She says she was shaken after reading the script Michael Lluberes (The REP’s producing artistic director) sent her. “Winnie’s desperate attempts to find the right order of mundane tasks to survive the monotony of her days being trapped in the earth cut way too close to the bone,” Walsh writes. She related to the “frantic attachment to routine in [her] own pandemic rituals.” She states she got frustrated by Winnie’s endless dialogue at first, but began to see Winnie as an example of how we should “keep our chin up” and how it mirrors the current testament to “human resilience,” “our capacity to endure,” and “hope in one another.”
This reviewer came to similar conclusions in the days after seeing it.
Future for The Rep and COVID restrictions for patrons
The run for “Happy Days” is unfortunately over, without an explanation from Michael Luberes. It was originally supposed to run for two weekends but that schedule was cut to just one. But maybe that’s okay for an initial return.
Walsh mentioned in her note, she “dreamt of being back in the theatre a great deal over the last year and a half. Welcome back.”
But it wasn’t all comfortable. Ticket holders were required to wear face masks all during the performance, asked to show their vaccination cards on entering, and having their temperatures taken — all those careful measures reminding us that we are not back into “Happy Days,” and perhaps are part of the absurdist drama that is all too real.
“Happy Days was sponsored by Joanne Wood and is part of the Signature Series which is sponsored by Whiting Foundation.
To find out what else is on The Rep’s 2021-2022 schedule and get tickets visit flintrep.org.
EVM reporter and layout coordinator Patsy Isenberg can be reached at email@example.com.