REVIEW- Happy Days – Stanford Summer Theater

My parents like to tell the story of coming in to check on me when I was a baby and quite often finding me wide awake, happy as a lark, just babbling to myself in my crib. What I was saying or thinking, we will never know, but they were amused that I seemed to be quite capable of carrying on a conversation with myself for hours and hours. For those that know me and especially those who have had to share a room with me, one can see that not much has changed since I was an infant. I bring this up only to demonstrate that I may perceive Stanford Summer Theater’s production of Happy Days, by the truly “special” Samuel Beckett, as a slightly more positive and perfectly “normal” play than perhaps a traditional segment of the theater-going population.

The basic circumstance of a woman, buried to her waist, unable to move, left to ponder life and entertain herself indefinitely, surely may be terribly depressing, tragic and pointless to some. I get that. But, it also might be kinda funny and really not all that far from where we start in life. Or…end up. There’s a lot to think about in this play (and maybe even talk to yourself about if you can’t find a willing soul to dialogue with) so be prepared to feel like you aren’t sure if art is imitating life or vice versa. Welcome to the world of Samuel Beckett.

Admittedly, as a mostly all 1 woman show running 85 minutes with no intermission, I was nervous FOR the actress. I might be happy to talk to myself for hours (I am an honorary crazy cat lady after all) but doing so with scripted lines full of non-sequiturs, repetition and keeping an audience of about 80 totally engaged throughout, THAT is an entirely different beast, one I’ll have no part in thank-you-very-much. While I’m sure there were nuances and deep philosophical segments that went over my head, the skillful performance our of actress did not. Honestly, beyond admirable. Consistent in all the right places, varied where it needed to be, clever choices throughout. The timing was both comic and sympathetic, and she flawlessly maneuvered the line between realistic “everyman” and performance art caricature. She’s a natural talent and walked right up to this big old scary Beckett challenge and laughed at it. She then might have kicked it in the shins,  sobbed a bit and quite possibly soiled her self, but if she did, it only helped her at winning.

I suspect the director was a key force in keeping the pacing and silences well calculated so we felt the appropriate kind of pain for our heroine instead of any semblance of pain from siting through an odd, non-linear script. The levels and beats of each sentence were orchestral in nature and the precise vocal alacrity that is so essential for any of Beckett’s stylized, abstract, experimental work, made the craft of this play really stand out. I was very aware as I was watching a story unfold that I was also observing art unfold and I liked very much being in two places simultaneously and being able to have that conversation in my head while playing my own silent part of the play’s conversation. too

A design shout out is in order for excellent choices for the color palette for set dressings, props and costumes. It might seem like an easy” thing to just have one set and a few props, but keeping even the most mundane of things eye-catching without being just a gimmick is paramount in helping to not “bore” an audience whose comfort zone often includes a fair amount more “action” and spectacle.

I’m a firm believer that your arts experience starts the second you arrive at the venue (and sometimes even as early as buying a ticket) and SST sets a fine example. Even in the midst of construction the Stanford campus is a jewel and the hospitality at the theater is top-notch.  I was greeted with smiles and all the information I needed and the house managers even distributed water bottles for free to the patrons as the room can get a bit warm with no intermission and the intense lighting.  I truly appreciated that extra care to enhance the experience of the audience and set everyone up for success.

So the good news is, I can easily bestow 4 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for this totally random, more than slightly absurd, but wonderfully performed play. The not so great news is that this show is Sold Out for the rest of the run (through August 25th). Great for SST and not as great for you if you don’t already have your ticket. But, being the problem solver that I am, here is the Waitlist Policy for those interested in taking a chance and potentially being rewarded with a definitely bizarre, but noteworthy production.

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