Mind over mound: Beckett’s Happy Days in Woodstock

Winnie (played by Bette Carlson) examines her toothbrush in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days , which opens on Thursday, August 11 for an eight-performance run at Woodstock’s Byrdcliffe Theatre.  (photo by Dean Powers)

Winnie (played by Bette Carlson) examines her toothbrush in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days , which opens on Thursday, August 11 for an eight-performance run at Woodstock’s Byrdcliffe Theatre. (photo by Dean Powers)

“Cast your mind forward, Winnie, to the time when words must fail.”

Don’t pity Winnie. Even though she is immovably ensconced in a mound of earth – up to her waist in Act I and up to her neck in Act II – she is able, for the most part, to put a decent spin on it, consoling herself with an endless stream of chatter and with such humble articles as her toothbrush, handkerchief, parasol and other paraphernalia, and with the knowledge that her companion, Willie, who is rarely seen or heard, has nevertheless not abandoned her.

No, don’t pity Winnie. Pity the actor who has to play Winnie.

Happy Days, which follows Endgame in the Beckett canon, opens on Thursday, August 11 for an eight-performance run at Woodstock’s Byrdcliffe Theatre. To say that the play presents the lead actor with a notoriously difficult role is to vastly understate the case. Consider: Brenda Bruce, who portrayed Winnie in the play’s British premiere at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1962, called it a “terrifying experience.” Eva Katharina Schultz, who incarnated Winnie with the Schiller-Theater in Berlin in 1971, said later that she played the first night in a trance, then broke down sobbing in her dressing room.

Asked to comment on the punishing nature of the part, Bette Carlson – who appears as Winnie in this Woodstock Fringe production – replied with an emphatic “Woof!”

Interviewed on a sweltering day two weeks ago in the attic of an old barn in Lake Hill, where the two-member cast was rehearsing, Carlson seemed to have found a degree of calm before the storm. “Physically, I’m still gearing up for it; I have to watch my posture, avoid straining, because I could hurt myself,” she said, adding that she was “measured for the mound,” so she can’t gain weight. (“It’s a customized mound; it’s not one of your off-the-rack mounds,” laughed Wallace Norman, director of both the Woodstock Fringe and this production.)

As Carlson gave voice to a section of her nearly continuous monologue from the first act, the jaunty purple feather adorning her hat was slightly stirred by a stream of cold air from the air conditioner. For Winnie, though, there will be no leavening breeze; by the second act she is little more than a talking head beneath the glare of a pitiless sun.

“That second act [in which Winnie is completely immobilized, save for her speech and eye movements] is really a bear,” said Carlson. “Psychologically, it’s a three-ring circus,” she added, noting that Winnie reverts, in memory, to her childhood, while continuing to suffer in her present straits.

Finally, we can add to the physical constraints and the psychological complexity of the character the immense challenge of learning Mr. Beckett’s language – “that incredible landscape of words,” as his friend, the writer Raymond Federman, put it – which pours itself out in a staccato torrent of pauses, repetitions, lyrical divagations and syntactical dislocations to a music all its own. Is it any wonder that Carlson and Ric Siler, who plays Willie, have been rehearsing their lines since last October? “I vowed that I would memorize the 63 pages and lose the 63 pounds,” Carlson laughed. But that’s the kind of commitment it takes to do justice to Beckett.

And yet despite – or perhaps, because of – the extreme mental and physical demands that it places upon an actor, the role is not without its compensations. “I’ve never had anything this difficult to do, and I’ve never had anything this rewarding,” said Carlson.

It is tempting, I suppose, to read Winnie’s mound as a metaphor – for, let’s say, to give merely one of dozens of possible constructions, the ceaseless accumulation of memories and their moment-to-moment minutiae in which we find ourselves interred. But it’s probably wise to resist the temptation to posit such analogies. Beckett himself was notoriously averse to such reductive “interpretations” of his work, which ultimately serve to dilute the power of his poetry, the singularity of his vision. When he was asked by Eva-Katharina Schultze to give her a handle on Happy Days, Beckett replied, “Don’t ask me for any meaning in the thing; it just is what it is.”

After inhabiting Winnie for the better part of a year, Carlson concurs: “It’s not a metaphor anymore,” she says – which is not to say that one cannot connect words or phrases or the indelible image of the lady encased in a mound to one’s own experience.

This is especially true for Carlson, who, in her day job as a speech/language pathologist, works with people “who have suffered unimaginable setbacks,” such as stroke, aphasia, ALS, cerebral palsy and literal loss of voice, as she notes in her bio on the Woodstock Fringe website. “The fragility of life – the humor and pathos inherent in every day of our lives – is manifested by these wonderful people into triumph. They know the themes that so consistently run through the work of Samuel Beckett. These performances will be dedicated to them – the living and the dead – who strove to keep going despite enormous odds.”

For his part, Siler says that he has “not been bored for one second” during the long haul of rehearsals. “It’s so deep and so true, such a rich portrait of people as they grow old together. I see so many parallels between this play and the way relationships develop in life,” he says, with old couples who have been together for many decades struggling to communicate, for instance, or taking each other for granted. (Interestingly enough, in “real life” Siler and Carlson are husband and wife, having been married for 30 years: a fact that could, conceivably, add several layers of extratextual richness to the relationship of Winnie and Willie.)

This production marks the return of the Woodstock Fringe to the newly renovated Byrdcliffe Theatre, after a hiatus of four years. (Norman, producing artistic director, debuted what was then a festival of several programs spanning a big chunk of the summer in 2003.) In addition to the director and the principals, the Happy Days crew consists of Lena Adams and Richard Ralff, stage managers; Zack Jacobs, lighting design; Bob McBroom, set design; and pyrotechnics (I won’t give you the spoiler) courtesy of Michael Lavin.

Incidentally, the Woodstock Fringe production will be the second time that Happy Days has graced the Byrdcliffe Theatre. A splendid production by A Single Voice Theater, with director Gillian Farrell as Winnie and Tad Wise as Willie, took place over several nights in 2001/02.

Happy Days opens on Thursday, August 11 and runs for eight performances through Sunday, August 21. Showtimes are 8 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday (except for Saturday, August 20 at 7 p.m.) and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Byrdcliffe Theatre is located at the apex of Upper Byrdcliffe Road in Woodstock. For tickets, visit www.woodstockfringe.org.

And oh, one caveat: Don’t buy a ticket if you’re expecting to see the Fonz.

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