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Quintessence Theatre Group closes their sixth season with their first modern classic, Samuel Beckett's 1961 comedy Happy Days.
As much as artistic director and set designer Alexander Burns likes to use bare stages for his large-cast classics (most recently George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, reviewed here, and Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, reviewed here, in repertory), he's able to commit to a full set for a play that requires one, and follows Beckett's exacting instructions well.
Burns creates a large mound of gravel on an otherwise flat and featureless plain along a long wall of the Sedgwick Theater. Winnie (E. Ashley Izard) is at the top, buried to her waist. Behind her is an obviously painted blue and white sky. Until the play begins, all is hidden from the audience, sitting close in only six rows, by a white curtain.
Half-buried, fully realized
"Do not expect naturalism," Burns explains in a program note, "If you expect anything that corresponds to traditional narrative, drama, or action, you will be frustrated until the play's climax."
Still, it's to his and Izard's credit that the play zips along with a clarity that, while not revealing a typical plot, is always engaging. Izard's expressive Winnie is likeable enough to keep our interest, but still recognizably damaged. The character can too easily be histrionic and shrill, but Izard keeps her — pardon the pun — grounded. Izard seems more focused, precise, and genuine here than in other Quintessence roles; when she exclaims, "Oh, it's going to be a happy day!" after unseen husband Willie (Gregory Isaac) deigns to utter a word, it includes a hint of despair that makes Winnie painfully real, despite her absurd situation.
It's a very impressive and commanding performance, despite — or perhaps because of — being half-buried.
Don't think too much
When Winnie says, "I can't move," it's both literal and figurative. She lives one day like the next, inventorying her bag's contents (treasures, comforts, necessities, plus a gun), fighting the sorrow that keeps breaking in. We're allowed to speculate, but should resist the instinct: to ask if this is a post-apocalyptic world invites a plot that Beckett didn't write. Is this a metaphor for a stalled life of diminished expectations and dull habits? Stop that; let the play come to you.
Act two offers no great revelations, but many meaningful changes. Winnie is buried to the neck, yet another acting challenge that Izard masters impressively, and Willie emerges, still mysteriously taciturn. The gun is still there, out of reach, but anyone expecting a Chekhovian resolution (he famously said that a gun seen on stage early on must be used later) doesn't know Beckett.
So take Burns' advice and engage Happy Days "as if watching a David Attenborough BBC nature special." The combination of spectacle and intimacy held my rapt attention, sparking thoughts about middle-age complacency, unmet expectations, and the incredible strength sometimes required to get through the day.
What, When, Where
Happy Days. By Samuel Beckett, Alexander Burns directed. Through June 26, 2016 at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 987-4450 or QuintessenceTheatre.org.
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