L-R: Michael Rudko (obscured) and Dianne Wiest in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” at the Mark Taper Forum through June 30, 2019. For tickets and information, please visit CenterTheatreGroup.org or call (213) 628-Photo by Craig Schwartz. All Uses © 2019 Craig Schwartz

There’s no doubt that Dianne Wiest gives an amazing performance in Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” at the Mark Taper Forum. She told an LA Times reporter that she just wants to play the role of Winnie over and over again. For many in the opening night audience, however, the play was too baffling to keep them in their seats. Many left at intermission. No one ever said Beckett was easy to comprehend, especially when nothing actually happens. But Wiest’s performance is luminous. What a loss for those who left early.

What is the play about? What is any existentialist, absurdist document about? Life. Boredom. Fear. Anticipation. Routine. Death. The meaning of existence. And what about the action? Not much.

OBJECTS AND LANGUAGE

In Act One, awakened by the ringing of a very loud and annoying bell, Winnie is buried up to her waist in a mound of sand in a desolate and barren landscape, with an unrelenting sun pouring down on her, yet announces, “Another heavenly day begins.” Her arms and hands are still free so she can reach into her bag…where she takes out her threadbare toothbrush and begins to brush her teeth.

Later she’ll pull out a nail file, a comb, a gun, a mirror, lipstick, a bottle of tonic of some kind that’s almost empty, a little hat, a music box, a magnifier, and she also has her parasol, to protect her from the sun. It’s like her little life raft, this bag. It’s all the mundane things we do in this world as part of our daily lives and routines.

Piece by piece, word by word, she addresses the objects in her own stream of consciousness, remembering the past, repeating lines she remembers from “the classics,” reading the faded label on the toothbrush, “genuine, pure…what?” she repeats, and finally pulls out a magnifying glass to find it says, “fully guaranteed… genuine pure… hog’s… setae” (bristles).

Also on the other side of the mound is her husband Willie (Michael Rudko), who is mostly out of sight throughout the play. But he occasionally responds and pops his head up, to hand her what must be a porno postcard; later she’ll throw her parasol at him and hit his head. Then we see him from the shoulders up, covering his head with a handkerchief and a hat on top of that.

How can anyone be optimistic in these circumstances? Is it Winnie’s nature to be optimistic or is it the only way for her to cope with the futility she faces?

NO ANSWERS

By the second act, Winnie is buried up to her neck, her objects are scattered on the ground around her but she’s immobilized and can’t reach them. All she has now are her facial gestures and her words, her memories, and while she’s still calling for him, she’s not even sure whether Willie is still alive. He surprises us by showing up in a tuxedo and top hat, struggling to reach either Winnie or the gun … but falling short.

No one has an answer in this Beckett play; it’s as much about the boredom of daily life as it is about the need to communicate and the ways we do, the fading of love, the absurdity of existence … It’s whatever you think it means. But one thing is certain: Dianne Wiest is transcendent. It’s an hour and forty minutes of non-stop Beckettian patter, with a few pauses, smiles, lack of smiles and the occasional view of Willie. It’s a remarkable performance.

Happy Days is on stage at The Mark Taper Forum downtown through June 30. https://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/mark-taper-forum/2018-19/happy-days/

CHARLES WHITE AT LACMA

This remarkable retrospective of artist Charles White is in its final days – it closes on June 9. If you have not yet gone to see it (I’m very late to this party), please do yourself a favor and GO!

He was a prolific African-American artist with footprints in Chicago, where he was born; New York, where he honed his art, social activism and gained recognition; and Los Angeles, where he developed his mature art and became a civil rights activist. This is the first major 21st-century museum retrospective on this renowned mid-century artist, who worked in graphic prints, drawings and oil paints. He is also known for murals, which aren’t shown here.

What he did beautifully was represent the circumstances black Americans faced in the 20th century while depicting them with strength and dignity. His portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass sit side by side as the leaders of abolition; his triptych of the movie Anna Lucasta pictures Sammy Davis, Jr., Eartha Kitt and Rex Ingram, Fred O’Neal and Georgia Burke, who starred in it. There’s also touchscreen of his sketchbook that’s wonderful to scroll through and helps you understand exactly how skilled an artist he was.

And one of his favorite subjects appears throughout this show: Harriet Tubman, whose name and face are much in the news today regarding her image on the $20, which the Trump administration has pulled back on producing. See her here in her glory.

I was completely awed by this exhibition; I hope you’ll catch it before it closes. www.lacma.org

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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