What Lies Beneath

Many a marriage must feel exactly like Winnie's predicament in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, now being forcefully and hilariously performed at Kitchen Dog Theater. There good wife Winnie (played by Shelley Tharp-Payton) stands in the first act, buried up to her waist in a mound of earth. Husband Willie (David Middleman) is barely visible, his bald head occasionally popping up like Kilroy from his trench behind Winnie's molehill. They never move and don't interact. Winnie carries on her monologue--a series of nonsensical statements and redundant stories that fold in on themselves--for the better part of two hours. She talks to Willie, to us, to the universe. By Act 2, she's simply a talking head, the earth having swallowed her up to her jaws. Willie's in a coma, slithering out slowly on his belly at the end of the play in one last sad attempt to "mount'' his wife.

Through it all, Winnie cheerfully prattles away about toothbrushing and the other routine ablutions that punctuate a day. She recites verse and sings a little song. She gossips about imaginary neighbors named Cooker and Shower while rummaging purposefully through an oversized handbag, extracting hairbrush, lipstick and handgun. She pops open a ruffled umbrella and says how tiring it is to hold it up while standing still--and how the fatigue would disappear if only she were in motion. Later on she says, "What a curse, mobility.''

Every now and then Winnie asks Willie if he's listening. She says she operates, like many wives, under the belief that he is. "Just to know that in theory you hear me when in fact you don't, that's all I need,'' she says. When Willie does manage to interject a grunt or syllable, Winnie declares exuberantly, "This is a happy day!'' For Winnie, no news is good news. Taking stock of her static situation, she says, "No better, no worse, no change.''

No kidding, right this minute couples exactly like Winnie and Willie are gumming early-bird Luby's Luann platters, buried up to their waists in gravy and boredom after umpteen years of the same conversation. The wife talks to remind herself she's alive. He blows his nose at the table just to annoy her. And another stale marriage plods on till death do they part.

From whatever perspective you take it, Beckett's brilliant, absurdist play, written in 1961, still is fresh and full of meaning. The playwright cunningly leaves it to us to decide what all of Winnie's idle chitchat is about. Happy Days has been interpreted by various critics and scholars as a post-apocalyptic vision, a political diatribe, a prayer about happiness, a study in loneliness and an expression of Irishman Beckett's own feelings of isolation and alienation in France, where he lived for most of his adult life (Happy Days was written originally in French, as was Beckett's Waiting for Godot).

Beckett never explained. "No symbols where none intended,'' he once wrote, preferring to let his stark, sometimes confusing language speak for itself.

The humor in Happy Days can be bleak and cynical, but as performed by Kitchen Dog's Shelley Tharp-Payton (under Bobbi Masters' direction), the words also take on a new glaze of optimism. With her expressive face, her clear, crisp delivery of the challenging dialogue and her unflagging energy, this actor gets every nuance from the role of Winnie. Where some actors find nothingness in the words, Tharp-Payton reaches for a deeper expression. She extracts real poetry from a play about the emptiness of human life. Our hearts break for this Winnie, stuck in her marriage and her mound of dirt and still thrilled to wake up in the morning. She is the spirit of human endurance personified.

If only the rest of the production values served this fine performance. Steve Woods' lighting design is routine and unexceptional. Amanda Embry does OK by the costumes, but her set design is a letdown. Against a painterly backdrop of what might be Ayers Rock, Winnie stands encased, not in an approximation of a pile of earth, but in a pale green papier mâché ziggurat. It looks cheap and slapped together, like the set of an Ed Wood movie. Tharp-Payton's touchingly realistic performance deserves to be supported by something less sci-fi.

A little thing called The Lion King is playing for the next few weeks at the Music Hall at Fair Park. Ya heard of it?

Yeah, who hasn't. The Yanomami deep in the Amazon jungle probably hum "Hakuna Matata'' while they're paddling their canoes. That's how deeply this overpraised piece of musical theater has penetrated global consciousness (or so Disney would have you believe).

What you have here is Hamlet in the rough, a patriarchal saga of a dead king, a usurping uncle, a guilt-ridden young prince and a celebration of royal birthrights. All of it, of course, has been stripped down and simplified to the pop-up book level. Tickets should come stamped "For ages 4 to 6.''

Shakespeare gave us great literature. He gave his brooding Danish prince the comic duo of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to play off of. The book for The Lion King was written by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, adapted from the screenplay for the animated version written by three other writers. It gives us nothing of substance--no meaning, no moral, no memorable lines. No there there. And they shackle lion prince Simba (played by Josh Tower) with a pair of idiotic stuffed figures named Timon (a Pink Panther-like meerkat, played by an overacting puppeteer named John Plumpis) and Pumbaa (a strangely skeletal but oversized warthog voiced and manipulated by Blake Hammond). These two, the kiddies' faves, escort Simba over the river and through the jungle, cracking jokes so bad they wouldn't get chuckles at a typical open-mike night.

The Lion King's book is miserably weak, and Elton John and Tim Rice's songs hit the nadir of pop corniness. Thank goodness then for the spectacular artistry of director-designer Julie Taymor's sets, costumes, masks and puppetry. The wildly exotic pictures she paints onstage--the enormous rising sun, the trompe l'oeil wildebeest stampede, the clever use of shadow, the dancers tumbling through the sky on wires--are jaw-droppingly beautiful.

The rest is just a silly excuse to sell souvenirs.