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That sinking feeling 

Happy Days goes deep into Beckett existentialism

Slowly being swallowed by a Floyd Tunson sculptural mound, a middle-aged woman goes down singing in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days.

Usually when you hear someone say they are buried up to their neck in something, they are speaking metaphorically. Not Winnie, the protagonist in Beckett's classic tragicomedy, which opens at TheatreWorks on Saturday. When the play starts, she's up to her waist in a pile of rubbish, cheerfully chatting away as she goes about her daily routine.

TheatreWorks artistic director Murray Ross says the role of Winnie, played by award-winning local actress Lynne Hastings, has been described as one of the greatest roles written for a woman in modern theater. It's essentially a one-person show, and by the second act, Winnie is buried up to her neck.

"You have to replace walking, moving and doing things with your whole body," explains Hastings, "and move it into your upper body and face."

Ross describes the play as an intricately and beautifully constructed piece of music in which the score is "a combination of gestures, words and language." Because of the play's radical minimalism, everything that Winnie says and does matters — "the way she turns her head, which hand is raised, the way she smiles, how long the laugh. All of this is completely rhythmic."

Irish author and playwright Beckett (1906-1989) is recognized as one of the great innovators in modern theater. Associated with the Theatre of the Absurd movement that emerged in Europe in the 1950s, he explored existential themes in Happy Days and other works. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1969 for what the prize selection committee called writing "which — in new forms for the novel and drama — in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation."

TheatreWorks received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to perform Happy Days, and commissioned Manitou Springs artist Tunson to design the set. Tunson's sculptural mountain of wood, debris, corrugated plastic and wire mesh creates the post-apocalyptic setting for the half-entombed Winnie.

While the play revolves mostly around Winnie, it's also an odd sort of love story, and Hastings' onstage husband, Willie, is the 45-year-old actress' real-life spouse, David. The two have been married for 15 years, which adds to the level of comfort Willie and Winnie feel with each other.

"When I yell at him to get back into his hole, I'm not worried about, 'Oh my god, am I yelling too much?'" Hastings says. "You don't hold back. We trust each other a lot." The dialogue between the pair is limited, and he spends most of his time camped out reading the newspaper behind her mountain while she talks at him, but his presence is supportive and they keep each other going.

We don't know how long Winnie's been stuck in her mound, how long she'll be there, or even why, but she maintains a resolutely cheerful attitude in spite of her predicament. Hastings admires Winnie's optimism.

"She wakes up each day and she has to make the day last, between the bell for waking and the bell for sleep, and if she were depressed, she'd blow her brains out. This is her life and she's going to live it the best she can."

  • Happy Days goes deep into Beckett existentialism

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