Happy Days thought-provoking theatre at London Fringe

Happy Days
The Passionfool Theatre Company
London, ON
Playwright: Samuel Beckett
Featuring: Eva Blahut and David Pasquino
Audience: Tragicomedy, General Entertainment
Director: Justin Quesnelle
Show length: 65 minutes
Dates: June 7, June 8 at 7 p.m.; June 9 at 1 p.m., June 12, 13, 14 and 15 at 7 p.m. and June 16 at 1 p.m.
Passion Fool Studio, Lower Level of Arts Project
Tickets: $10

The fact that Samuel Beckett chose the title Happy Days for his 1961 literary quest for the meaning of existence amidst the absurdity of life should be enough to draw the curious to The Passionfool Theatre Company’s latest theatrical outing.

It’s the ideal work for anyone the least bit interested in the playwright’s theatrical view of the ongoing oddities and frustrations that plague our lives – relationships that seem tenuous at best, mounds of trivial minutia that comprise the average day or perhaps even the chance to explore the definition of optimism, tinged with those nasty little episodes of pessimism.

As one of the highlights of this year’s London Fringe, the Passionfool Theatre Company has a veritable field day rummaging through the eccentricities that seem to define Beckett’s work throughout his career.

What’s even more delightful is trying to figure out in almost piecemeal fashion, as you sit mesmerized for a full 65 minutes, just how this is considered one of the playwright’s more cheery works and the lead Winnie likely his most approachable, even happiest character.

Giving away too much of the storyline is to spoil the intellectual game that awaits any adventurous audience. Indeed it is a game and a bold, clever one that only Beckett could have conceived and delivered in such convincing fashion.

The joy of this particular production is the riveting performance of Eva Blahut who is engaging and oddly other-worldly simultaneously. When she appears on the verge of tears, she pushes you away, hitting you with an unexpected but delightful moment of sheer joy. She is as expressive in her mannerisms as the dialogue Beckett has written.

For the most part an optimist, she nonetheless moves about with sublime ease – with the use of varying vocal pitch, sudden changes of facial expressions and simple reaction to her mundane surroundings – a sensory journey  taking her, and the audience, along her perfunctory daily routine that teeters with tedious regulatory on the precarious edge of frustration and bewildered wonderment.

“Sometimes I am wrong. But not often. Sometimes all is over, for the day, all done, all said, all ready for the night, and the day not over, far from over, the night not ready, far, far from ready. But not often.”

Unlike previous presentations that have utilized a simple mound of dirt as the set, this one – presumably thanks to the clever instincts of director Justin Quesnelle – has opted to bury the middle-aged Winnie in a carefully constructed pile of clutter that, with such seemingly incongruous yet obviously connected items like cribs, chess pieces, old photos, three clocks showing the same time of close to 12 (you choose either the midnight or noon hour) and much more.

In act one she is buried slightly above her waist, still able to function and use such objects as a toothbrush, mirror, and handkerchief, while playing both literally and philosophically with her ever handy revolver. For the second act she is virtually motionless with only her head visible.

The only other character in the production is her rarely seen mate Willie, existing beneath a pile of newspapers, moving only once on all fours, dragging his weary left leg, occasionally uttering more than his usual monosyllabic grunts and groans and offering an outstretched left hand. Their relationship appears to be more a matter of symbolic presence. David Pasquino offers very good support in his role.

It’s the sheer mastery of Blahut – her grasp of Beckett’s haunting obsession with such a dim and grim vision of humanity along with her virtually flawless delivery – enhanced by smiles, sneers and raised eyebrows – of such a lengthy monologue – that makes Happy Days such an intriguing work.

She seems perfectly at home and quite believable tossing about the phrase "Happy Days" or noting with great despair “that sorrow keeps breaking in”. Her Winnie is a figure of simple desperation and pure compassion. She is alternately weary but nonetheless durable; a reflection of Beckett’s much analyzed vision of life.

If Beckett is indeed an existentialist, as some literary pundits suggest, then Happy Days is one of his works that, while it does conform largely to that overriding sense of disorientation in the face of an absurd world, his chief protagonist on the surface nonetheless appears to offer some sense of redemption or least the essence of hope.

Some may leave the theatre, with utter confusion written across their faces, scratching their heads in wonder but The Passionfool Theatre Company has done a mind-numbingly good job of making audiences think about what they’ve just witnessed. It may and should generate some enticing water cooler chatter the next morning at work.

However, those nurtured on the mind-blowing spectacle of gratuitous computer-generated images, crisply edited and manipulated action sequences and the prerequisite dosages of fast and furious, death defying, bone-crunching automotive chases through decaying urban landscapes, Happy Days may not be your proverbial cup of tea.

For those who enjoy the tragi-comic musings of the renowned minimalist Beckett, the well-honed interpretive skills of actors like Eva Blahut and simply leaving a theatre with some questions still unanswered, this is the one to catch. Happy Days reaches through the pile of confusion and grabs **** out of four stars.

  /   4

Geoff Dale is a freelance writer and photographer based in Woodstock, Ontario. Born in London, England, he has been a journalist since 1975 and a lover of film, theatre and books since as long as he can remember. A Stratford Festival reviewer for The Beat, he is expecting his first work of fiction, an alternative history entitled The Fine Art of Boxing – No Stooge in the Ring, to be published sometime in 2013.

The Arts Project - Theatre