“You’re going to talk to me! Another happy day!” Samuel Beckett’s heroine Winnie addresses her seldom-seen husband Willie after he’s finally emitted a syllable.
But the talking—and most of the very local action—is Winnie’s, primarily, as Beckett’s last full-length play centers on this older woman’s predicament, trapped to the waist in a mound of earth, and on the soliloquy-like monologues she delivers to make sense of it all and carry on and find happiness.
Visiting Russian performer Oleg Liptsin’s very fine theatrical conceit, that of playing Winnie in a modern form of the Kabuki onnagata (male actor playing a stylized woman), accompanied complementarily by Jayne Entwistle (of Big City Improv) as Willie, only adds to Happy Days’ spare, elegant poetry that pares existence to the bone.
This balancing act between absurd humor and a strangely familiar pathos comes to the Berkeley City Club, presented by Antares Ensemble as a benefit for PAAP—a scholarship fund to send Berkeley and Oakland students to UC—one night only, Saturday Sept. 30, after closing a very short run this Thursday at the Shelton Theatre in downtown San Francisco.
Liptsin has directed at Shelton on previous visits, and his production of Tolstoy’s The Living Corpse is due to open there Oct. 7. But he seldom performs here, and to see him essay the female lead of this modern classic (which he directed earlier this year at the Beckett Centenary Festival in Krakow) is to witness a sterling example of the innovations of Russian theatrical technique that trace back to V. S. Meyerhold, to his student Eisenstein and its adaptation to Soviet film, to Bio-Mechanics and Eccentrism—much-heralded styles that we hear of, but seldom see, except second (or third) hand.
Liptsin’s the genuine article, and though the rigors of Winnie’s predicament prevent him from employing the more acrobatic means of his style, the range and play of expressions on the living mask of his/Winnie’s face, as well as the vigor of gesture (hands darting in and out of a handbag, where the things rummaged up—a toothbrush, a compact, a tiny .22 pistol—serve as the only props in the barren landscape of bare stage that’s backdrop to The Heap) and the vocal expression are athletic enough for a dozen other shows of physical theater.
Beckett wrote Happy Days in English, after having written Waiting for Godot and Endgame (his two other full-length plays) and most of the rest of his dramatic and fictional prose work from the late 1940s to 1960 in French.
It premiered in New York, though Beckett was more closely associated with its first Paris production, in which Roger Blin directed Madeleine Renaud as Winnie, with her husband, the great mime Jean-Louis Barrault, as Willie. When he later directed the play himself, Beckett, who said he tried to direct his own works as though someone else had written them, and indeed felt that time had made it as if someone else had, changed both text and stage directions, contrary to the general impression that he was an absolutist in the literal presentation of his plays as written.
Liptsin has cut Happy Days somewhat, and added a kind of denouement, not so much to the text as to its style of presentation. The result plays up Happy Days’ curiously wry charm.
“Theater is a game in liberation,” Liptsin says, “and to liberate oneself, one needs distancing, a detached position ... the mask from theater tradition is enormously inspiring.”
“Earth, you old extinguisher!” Liptsin, expressing Beckett’s eloquent Anglo-Irish, the heir to the Enlightenment idiom of Swift, Goldsmith, Burke and Bishop Berkeley, delivers the lines in Slavic rhythm and accent, rendering the tiniest nuance with his torso, long arms and hands, the angle of his head, the corners of his eyes and mouth—finally, the face alone. The audience seems to laugh serially at the lines and expressions, then falls into a rapt silence.
When Beckett’s plays are done like this, as poetry of the stage, there’s none of that nervous questioning of what it all means that dogs so many productions, so many discussions. It’s all right there, not transparent but palpably present, and as mysterious as life itself, just as theater is both immediate and yet always something else.
Beckett, whose “minimalism” has become a proverbial cliche, expressed his own views on meaning when he said that if he knew what it meant, he would have stated it in the play, and that his work was solely made up of “fundamental sounds (no pun intended),” and that it was up to critics and the audience to search for meaning, if they wanted to, and if they had qualms, “provide their own aspirin.”
8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30 at Berkeley City Club.
Sliding scale, $9-25. Parking, $5.
(415) 531-8454 or www.antaresensemble.org.