Catastrophic Theatre Brings Back Samuel Beckett's Happy Days Once Again

Director Jason Nodler in rehearsal for Samuel Beckett's Happy Days.
Director Jason Nodler in rehearsal for Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. Photo by Karina Pal Montaño-Bowers

Winnie is not old. She is not young. She is a middle-aged woman stuck in every sense. Buried to her waist in the earth day after day, she is alone, even as her husband Willie lives in a hole behind her, although a grand companion he is not.

It's the 30th anniversary of Catastrophic Theatre (if you include their previous incarnation as Infernal Bridegroom Productions) and what could be more appropriate than a Samuel Beckett existential play at the Houston theater known for its avant garde tradition.

It was 22 years ago that Artistic Director Jason Nodler directed Tamarie Cooper in Happy Days and this week marks their return to the play both tragic and comic. Despite being buried, Winnie has her routine.  Her day starts when a loud bell rings and she takes out her possessions — lipstick, toothbrush, comb, gun — from her bag. All are gathered up at the end of every "day."

She tries to engage Willie (Greg Dean) in conversation with only the most minimal of success. Despite this, she declares that what's to come in another happy day even as she sinks ever deeper into the crusty soil, eventually in it up to her neck. She holds onto her optimism as long as she can.

"I think there's sort of a common misunderstanding of [Beckett's] plays as being dreary or dark or grey. They're actually quite quite funny," says Nodler. "When Tamarie's character Winnie spends her days finding the happiness and finding the comedy in life. Beckett has a wonderful quote 'Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.'"

"She is struggling. This is not a play about dying. It's a play about aging," Nodler says.

Nodler says they are leaning into the comedy of the two-act, something they always do with Beckett plays. "Aging can be difficult and it also can be quite funny. And quite happy. Beckett didn't love anyone better than Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin.

"She does her very best to push difficult things out of her mind as we all do and focus on joyful things. I think that it is a play filled to joy." Winnie keeps herself busy and finds comfort with happy memories, he says. "She lives in the now."

It's a tough role to play in that Cooper who is doing almost all of the talking, has a lot of lines to remember and deliver, Nodler says. One advantage to performing and directing this now is that in the intervening 22 years, both Nodler and Cooper have gained insights about aging that they didn't have 22 years ago, he says.

As for the moral of this story? "Our aim with regards to the audience's takeaway is always that they're able to see themselves in the play. So where there is ambiguity, we don't make a decision one way or the other, we try to preserve all possibilities."

Like other theater venues in Houston and across the country, Nodler says everyone involved is very happy to be back to live theater, while still keeping an eye on health and safety with COVID-19 especially in the small theater they use. 

"Theater is not theater without the audience and the energy that is exchanged between the audience and the actors is critical. It's what makes theater, theater."

Performances are scheduled for September 23 through October 15 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays (with a special Monday performance at 7:30 p.m. Monday October 3) at the MATCH, 3400 Main. For more information, call 713-522-2723 or visit $35 suggested.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing