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“Happy Days” at Russell Sage College proves the value of college theater

An actor holds a magnifying glass to her mouth in "Happy Days"
Photo courtesy of Russell Sage College
A scene from "Happy Days" at Russell Sage College

In this culturally rich area we are fortunate to have an abundance of theater. We have access to strong professional theater both at Capital Rep and with the touring shows that play at Proctors. There are a few smaller companies that also use professional actors.

Too, there is an overwhelming amount of good, non-professional theater. In September, a theatergoer had access to more than a dozen different productions.

Yet, one aspect of theater that is sorely overlooked by the public at large is college theater.

We have several colleges in the area that offer strong, non-commercial shows that other companies could not risk producing. Their appeal is limited and not likely to make expenses at the box office.

For example, Russell Sage College in Troy just opened a production of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” which continues this weekend at their James Meader Little Theatre on the Troy campus. It is typical of the material that no commercial theater would touch. Leaving the worthy production the most common question I overheard people asking was “What does it mean?” “Happy Days” is so dense the answer was usually “I don’t know. Do you have any idea?”

Consistently, what I find important and common in most of the Beckett-written plays I’ve attended is the second question signifies that the material has gnawed itself into an audience’s mind. At “Happy Days” the second question is “Are you a Winnie or a Willie?”

To understand the question, you should know the plotless play revolves about a woman, Winnie, who in the first act is buried up to her waist offering her views on the world and the purpose of existence.

Every so often she talks to her husband Willie, who is clearly subservient to her needs and demands. Willie is barely seen as he scurries about behind the mound dutifully obeying Winnie.

In the second act, which is barely a half hour long, Winnie is buried up to her neck as she continues her chatter. Nonetheless, she is still cheery, taking everything as a sign that signals “today will be a very happy day.”

What is incredible about this bizarre sounding and utterly mystifying play is that Winnie’s chatter becomes spellbinding. You might not understand her on a logical level, but subliminally you relate to her plight of being trapped with her thoughts, but unable to take action.

Like Winnie, you don’t have to know why life seems without purpose, repeating itself hour by hour, a day at a time without you having any control of time or destiny. Somehow though, you intuit that Winnie represents all of humanity existing in a world that cannot be understood. Talk about contemporary.

Under the controlled direction of David Baecker, the mature performance of Regina Desrosiers is perfect for this woman. She is sunny, confused, insightful, resigned and empowered all with a framework that almost reduces her to be symbolic rather than real. Only a junior at Sage, she has a bright future.

Playing her husband Willie, Cameron Richardson capably grunts, groans, obeys and even crawls up a hill to do what he can for Winnie.

He and director Baecker offer the suggestion that Willie is not always the subservient one in the relationship. As in all partnerships, the power shifts as circumstances demand. Again, part of the brilliance of “Happy Days” is we understand we are all both Winnie and Willie.

Attending “Happy Days” demands a lot from the audience. You may wonder why you chose to experience it. At least until the images and questions the production offers worm their way into your head, days and even weeks later.

The Theatre Institute at Sage production of “Happy Days” does this. It continues through Sunday.

As for college theater overall, there will also be productions at other schools this fall. November 1-6 Union College in Schenectady will offer Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at its Yuman Theatre.

October 15-19 Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs presents “Silent Sky,” a play about an actual astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, who at the turn of the 20th century was denied access to the men’s world of charting the universe.

The play examines how her eventual achievements mirrored how she navigated her role as a woman in an equally restrictive society.

At approximately the same time, October 19-23, the University at Albany’s theater department is offering six public performances of “The Wolves.” It’s about nine teenage girls discovering their own identities while competing for recruiters of a college soccer program.

November 18-20, December 2-4 Skidmore performs Sarah Ruhl’s contemporary take on the Greek Myth “Eurydice.” It’s about her and Orpheus’s trip through the underworld.

If this sounds familiar, the story is also the basis for the hot Broadway musical “Hadestown.” The difference is Ruhl’s “Eurydice” tells the story from the woman’s point of view rather that the male view.

Certainly there is a lot of theater available. However, if you prefer unique plays, offered in a quality fashion at inexpensive prices, don’t overlook college theater productions.

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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