The alchemy of emptiness

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"Happy Days," starring Dianne Wiest Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

Samuel Beckett’s plays can be really tricky. They are conceptually so full and simultaneously so maddeningly empty.

It’s that emptiness that’s the key. What a production does with that emptiness is what separates a transcendent production of Beckett from a sleep-inducing one.

Take the production of “Happy Days” starring Dianne Wiest at the Mark Taper Forum.

As you enter the Mark Taper, you encounter a glowing scarlet curtain framed by wood paneling complete with footlights, something in the old style. Only the most observant will notice the cracks in the moulding that allows the loose earth to spill into the auditorium.

Once that flowing curtain goes up we see Beckett’s conceptual genius in full display. There’s a mound of arid tan soil. Behind, a perfect blue sky with only a wisp of clouds. And there, buried up to her waist is a woman.

Is there a more evocative opening moment in theater?

When we learn her partner has his own hole in the sand and that they barely interact but are trapped repeating their hollow routine for an eternity - well, the play almost takes care of itself.

Except it doesn’t.

While Beckett stacks the deck with setting and circumstance - the play that follows is deliciously empty. Nothing much happens. Which is to say a lot happens but nothing we’d mistake for a riveting plot or a rip-roaring story. The words instead circle around the mundane through the minutiae of existence.

Now in the right hands - that emptiness can reveal an entire world of desperation. This woman trapped in the sand can reveal her whole life. She can like Didi and Gogo in “Waiting for Godot” or Krapp and his famous tapes, become stand-ins for everything we find lacking in our world and our souls. All these little gestures and distractions can pull at our hearts as we stare into our own emptiness while laughing at Beckett’s crass Irish humor and self-conscious word games.

We can see in the attempt to read the faint letters on the handle of a toothbrush an all too familiar struggle with age and time. We can witness our own devilish mortality and decay.

In the right hands, in these streams of almost nonsense a greater order begins to reveal itself - as if you were witnessing someone frantically sorting the possessions of their mind into piles that defied any known taxonomy: one sock with baked goods, another with a pile of photographs - it makes no sense and yet there is an order, a system.

How great actors do this is akin to how we all confront our own chaos. Rather than allowing Beckett to not make sense, to allow the thoughts to be a random stream of consciousness, they demand that the world be perfectly logical. Just like you do within your own life - making sense of every detail and rationalizing every decision.

Somewhere in that struggle, the best productions of Beckett perform a mystical alchemy that turns that emptiness into meaning, chaos into connection.

I’d love to tell you that’s what happens in this production but I can’t. The emptiness never transcends the concept. A woman buried up to her neck is little more than a woman buried up to her neck for 90 minutes.

“Happy Days” plays at the Mark Taper Forum downtown through June 30th.