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‘Happy Days’ spent between a rock and a hard place

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One actress, buried to her waste in rubble. All but alone, but alive. Samuel Beckett’s 1960 play “Happy Days,” finds the playwright, an existentialist naturalist, at his most forlorn and blasted. Beckett’s characters are seldom given lively existences, but none have quite such literal restraints as we find here. A production of this grim spectacle by the National Theater of Britain, directed by Deborah Warner and starring august classical actress Fiona Shaw, will begin a month-long run in downtown Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on January 8. Warner’s last work with Shaw, an inners-curdling production of “Medea,” played at BAM in 2002. We open the play with the main character, Winnie, up to her bosom in rubble. She has not always been like this, but she is now. She is equipped with a purse, a parasol, a gun, and her laconic husband Willie. Her dialogue is oblique and often despairing, yet she remains optimistic, insisting that this will be a happy day. By the second act, she is up to her neck. Cut off from society, the objects in Winnie’s possession – a threadbare toothbrush, a worn parasol, a string of pearls one good tug away from rupture – have lost their functionality. Winnie uses them only to perform her routine, meaningless except for the structure it gives her life. Shaw, in preparing for the role, looked at Winnie’s situation as that of someone at the end of a long relationship, where actions that once had significance are now enacted out of habit, inertia mistaken for comfort. “I started to find footholds for the role from my own life: a woman I knew as a child whose husband had stopped responding to her years before,” said Shaw, in an article she penned for London’s Guardian. “I remember her saying, ‘Are you enjoying your lunch, love?’ then carrying on, as if he had answered her: ‘Good.’ She was clinging on to the edge of that marriage, just like Winnie. Better something than nothing.” Critics have taken to reading the stage set, a great rubbled wasteland of dirt and disgorged concrete designed by Tom Pye, as the aftermath of a catastrophe: a terrorist attack, a war, climate change. While a World Trade Center reduced to earth and slag remains New York’s regnant image of destruction and apocalypse, perhaps the demolition engendered by the city’s construction boom is ultimately a more apt visual counterpart. Every new tower means an older building brought to ruins. Thousands of Brooklynites arise each morning to look out over a street seemingly less familiar than the one they fell asleep to. While Winnie’s situation is constant and those city neighborhoods in the throes of immigration and gentrification anything but, the sense of loss and enduring displacement can be the same. As thousands of unseen hands disassemble and rebuild their community by new blueprints, those who found that place familiar are themselves modified. “To have been what I always am – and so changed from what I was,” says Winnie. And so we may say of the residents of the borough of Brooklyn. Happy Days will be be appearing at BAM’s Harvey Theater at 651 Fulton Street between Ashland Place and Rockwell Place from January 8 to February 2. For complete showtimes and to purchase tickers, please visit BAM.org. For BAM subscribers, the ticket price is $20 to $60. For non-subscribers, the price is $25 to $75. Fore more information, call 718-636-4100.

Updated 6:57 pm, October 10, 2011
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