Heavy Stuff, Played Lightly

Earlier this week we had the first-day-of-rehearsals “meet and greet” for the third show of the season, Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. The production, starring four-time Best Actress Oscar nominee and renowned theater actress Marsha Mason (pictured at left) opposite Cal Shakes Associate Artist Dan Hiatt, is directed by our A.D., Jonathan Moscone, and boy is he excited about it. Apparently he’s had a crush on the Goodbye Girl since he was a lad—luckily for him, Ms. Mason’s former stepdaughter was one of his BFFs for a time. So now, he says, he’s realizing a longtime dream in directing her.

This is the first time Moscone has directed anything by the late, great, Nobel-prize winner, and the first time any of Beckett’s works will be presented at Cal Shakes. Talk about pressure! “When you take on Beckett,” the director said early on in this week’s meet and greet, “you imagine that you’re taking on every single intellectual being ever.”

Despite Moscone’s very public statements of nervousness over tackling Happy Days, his explanation of the title shows his sheer excitement at digging into the work. For those of you who don’t know, Happy Days features a middle-aged woman, Winnie, dressed in evening wear and buried “up to her diddies,” as she says, in earth. A blazing, never-setting sun is overhead; Winnie wakes to the sound of a bell each day, although the concept of a “day” seems somewhat unrealistic in this setting. But it is a “happy day,” says Moscone. “The title is not ironic. Winnie is finding joy in her day.” She goes through the items in her purse, tells ribald tales to her largely unresponsive husband, Willie, and, as the director puts it, “emanates the light and the heat and the experience of her life, continuing to move forward amidst stasis.” And her hourglass seems to be at its tipping point: Her bottle of tonic is almost empty, her tube of toothpaste is about to run dry, and her umbrella bursts into flames. Something, on this day of all days, is about to change.

Moscone and Mason do not see Winnie as matronly or prim; to that end, costumer Meg Neville is working on a dress that allows Winnie to “take advantage of what she has available,” says the director. “There are many ways a woman can play up their sexuality.”

“Shakespeare is bawdy; Beckett is dirty.”

To create the possibly post-apocalyptic environs of Happy Days amid the hilly splendor of Cal Shakes’ Siesta Valley home, scenic designer Todd Rosenthal—awarded with a Tony earlier this year for his August: Osage County sets—is working closely with Moscone and Mason to to create a sort of shoebox full of dirt and debris that has been tipped over and spilled (pictured at left). Among the spillage will be signs of life: perhaps a radio, a dresser, lamb, a Radio Flyer wagon that Willie may rest upon, lean against his own past. And inside the rusted metal diorama will be a bright, too-blue sky.

In opposition to productions of Happy Days that elicit a “oh, that sad woman” response, Moscone explains, he sees the play as “heavy stuff played lightly, allowing people to access their own story inside of it.”

“Winnie has no one to talk to, for the most part, except for us, the audience,” says the director. To this, Mason adds, “I want to reinforce the idea that the audience is part of this experience. I want to engage them. This is a very specific day; otherwise this play is not worth doing.”

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