Samuel Beckett's darkly funny existentialist Happy Days poses a challenge for any actress. After all, the 1961 play is virtually a monologue delivered by Winnie, a jabbering housewife who is buried up to her waist (and later on up to her neck). Not surprisingly, Fiona Shaw- last seen at BAM in 2002 in Medea, also directed by her frequent collaborator Deborah Warner- rises to the challenge and turns in a bravura performance.
First staged at London's National Theatre a year ago, this invigorating production is notable for its massive set designed by Tom Pye. Rather than the simple mound of dirt Beckett described, Pye puts Winnie in a sprawling postapocalyptic wasteland that includes slabs of concrete.
The set, which looks particularly apt in the faux-dilapidated Harvey Theater, is bleaker than the tone established early on by Warner and Shaw. Beckett's work is both bleak and comical, but this staging brings out the comedy whenever possible. Only in the second act does the mood darken. Some Beckett purists may think Warner and Shaw try too hard to get laughs, but the text contains ample amounts of dark humor.
Despite Winnie's predicament ( being half-buried in dirt and exposed to the blaze of hellish light), she's surprisingly cheerful and unflappable during the first act. Another heavenly day, Winnie says at the start of the play. A bit later, she hopes for another happy day. She makes do with the contents of her purse: a toothbrush, hairbrush, magnifying glass, nail file, and a rather ominous gun. And she is delighted whenever she can muster s response of any kind from her taciturn husband, Willie ( Tim Potter), who periodically extricates himself from a nearby hole. All he needs, it seems, is a pornographic postcard.
Although Happy Days is basically a one-hander by Winnie, it is still very much a two-person play about an interdependent couple trying to cope in exceedingly trying circumstances. Winnie survives by being cheerfully, girlishly optimistic. In the second act, now buried up to her neck in dirt, she tries to sustain her chipper outlook. But now her chattering becomes strained and desperate sounding. Warner and Shaw's Happy Days is, in the end, bleak. It just takes longer to get there than some productions.
Although Shaw reportedly struggled with both the part and the play during rehearsals, she has triumphantly made the role her own. The actress makes the most of even the simplest lines, and her limited mobility doesn't prevent her from coming up with inspired facial expressions and gestures. It's a perfect match of actress and role and theater buffs should hurry to BAM to catch Shaw's utterly winning Winnie. ( Happy Days plays until Feb. 2)