- Happy Days
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Mabou Mines inaugurated its new performance space, TORONADA, with Ruth Maleczech in Happy Days. The production was developed at the La Jolla Playhouse and directed by Robert Woodruff. Happy Days might seem an odd choice given Mabou Mines’s preference for producing new work, but this innovative production showcases the talents of co-founder Maleczech and underscores the company’s reputation for startling, yet highly satisfying renditions of Beckett’s work. Although Woodruff is not a member of Mabou Mines, his production reads Beckett closely while staking out its own imaginative terrain. This piece belongs to a postmodern world where the parameters for identity and community are constantly shifting.
TORONADA, named for Tony Vasconcellos, Ron Vawter, Nancy Graves, and David Warrilow, was renovated from studio and office space Mabou Mines has long occupied at the P.S. 122 Community Center. Douglas Stein’s set for Happy Days, reconceived for TORONADA, filled one corner of this space. A scalloped, sand-colored curtain rose to reveal, as though in her boudoir, Winnie slumped over her mound. Yet this hillock, in which Winnie was embedded to the waist, was itself spiked down with a pile of cracked and broken windshields that seemed the deadly detritus of a wrecked civilization. Like Winnie, these vehicles are mobile no more. Whether lit (by John Martin) from above, so that the glass shines as though the sun has fused Beckett’s sand into a harder postmodern substance, or below, so that we seem to look into a tank of greenish-blue water suspended above the stage, the mound evokes at once a brutal earth, sea, and sky. Without declaring itself, the translucent, unforgiving matter that holds Winnie suggests her vulnerability. It reminds us that Winnie is on display, at the mercy of passers-by, one of whom has wondered, “Has she anything on underneath?” “Is there any life in her legs?” Of course, these onlookers never appear; even Winnie’s memory of [End Page 86] them is uncertain. Yet clearly, Winnie is caught in a glassy substance all the more threatening because, both liquid and solid, it reveals her while it cuts her off from her sexuality. Stein’s set conveys these liminal elements of Beckett’s scene brilliantly.
It is not uncommon to depict Winnie as though she were comfortable in her earth-mound. But Maleczech’s Winnie is clearly out of her element; she resists her circumstances. This is perhaps the most striking element of Maleczech’s canny performance. Like the title character Maleczech played in Patricia Spears Jones’s play Mother, inspired by Gorky’s novel, Winnie is difficult. She is full of prosaic grousing, as was the Mother when she packed up her I-love-New York shopping bag and left her old life behind. Winnie has fewer options than the Mother; yet she too occupies a new world. In a sense Winnie’s situation mirrors that of Mabou Mines—a company that speaks in the multiple voices of the postmodern while remaining defiantly modernist, i.e. avant garde.
Under Woodruff’s direction, Maleczech’s Winnie is full of sharp irony. Maleczech’s well-known restlessness with “doing plays” rather than devising original work motivates her treatment of regard for her character. She is matter-of-fact but never simple in her brutal doting over Willie (Tom Fitzpatrick). It seems almost a portrait of a working-class woman who aspired to a middle-class respectability that she never quite achieved. At the same time Maleczech’s Winnie seems a bit cynical—by turns sarcastic and hopeful. Not for her the pretty manners of Rosaleen Linehan, who played Winnie in the Gate Theatre’s production seen at Lincoln Center in 1996. Maleczech’s Winnie is fierce. Despite her smile she has little sentiment for “the old sweet style.”
This underlying fierceness would seem excessive if Winnie’s irony...