BOTTOM LINE: Don’t miss this downtown theatre experience if only for the sheer hubris of the effort, an experimental staging of the first part of William Faulkner’s novel.
I once had a theatre professor who said that the mark of a good work of art is that you wanted to live inside it. I not only wanted to live inside the world that Elevator Repair Service created for The Sound and The Fury (April Seventh, 1928), I did live there for the 2 1/2 hour ride. This production saturates its audience with the story, characters and emotions Faulkner evokes. Even though it uses Faulkner’s text verbatim, it is more like swimming in the subconscious of the Compson family, not always a happy and light place, but certainly a fascinating one.
Elevator Repair Service (ERS) has been performing off-off-Broadway and touring the U.S. and Europe for the past 17 years. Two years ago they performed Gatz, their version of The Great Gatsby, also told verbatim in a 7-hour epic, which had huge critical acclaim but was blocked by the Fitzgerald Estate from mounting a full NYC production. ERS is now back in their off-Broadway debut at New York Theatre Workshop with another novel-to-stage conversion, and an even bolder experiment: performing the first of four sections of The Sound and The Fury.
Here is a complicated and epic take on William Faulkner’s equally complicated novel. The story focuses on the Compson family, in a post Civil War South. A once noble and respectable clan, their lives and livelihood are on the decline. It is a story of suicides, sickness, desperation, and disability. The first of the four sections of the novel is told from the perspective of Benjy Compson, an autistic mute, here played compellingly by both Susie Sokol and Aaron Landsman. Though the story takes place on Benjy’s 33rd birthday, it jumps in time and space, here at Christmas, there on a wagon ride, back at the family dining table, or in front of the fireplace, often with no narrative segues. The reader is left to guess at when and where we are in the timeline of Benjy’s life. Benjy’s thoughts stray between the colors and shapes that mesmerize him, to his love for his often-promiscuous sister, Caddy, to the daily taunts and trials he has to endure at the hands of his family.
David Zinn’s luscious set design strikes one first upon entering New York Theatre Workshop’s East Village space, a conglomeration of mostly “found” furniture from the streets of NYC, arranged to evoke a turn of the century living room. Old Civil War family photos, a Christmas tree in the corner, couches and antique lamps are all assembled to suggest elements of the Compson home. Then the lights come up and the ride begins. Most of the actors appear in modern costumes or in pieces that evoke character rather than fully represent them in period attire. The text of the novel is communicated verbatim, including all the “Caddy said”, and “Luster said’s”, which can sometimes feel like being curled up to hear a great bedtime story.
On top of this, Director John Collins chooses multiple actors in his solid ensemble of twelve to portray the characters at different moments in the play. Four actresses play Caddy, while three actors play the mother Caroline Compson, and two Benjy. There are no rules here. Or there are new rules here. Actors jump from role to role with disregard to race or gender, and yet, I rarely felt myself confused by the transitions. The production allowed us to live inside Benjy’s head, no easy feat as he cannot talk himself, by so poetically evoking the chaos of Benjy’s mind. The colors and textures that draw Benjy to him, are the whirlwind of ideas and images inherent in the production itself. It is in fact a full visceral assault, with Mike Tierney’s sound design aiding the build into the emotional peaks of the narrative. The staging is porous. Characters come and go, scenes appear, disappear and re-appear again. A wall becomes a tree, which becomes the outside of the house; a desk becomes a fireplace, which becomes a funeral procession. This is theatre at its most exciting and innovative. John Collins and his company have done a masterful job of evoking Benjy’s lost and scattered mind, as well as an era of transition, decline and confusion in our collective history.
I highly recommend the show to anyone interested in unconventional downtown theatre. I can’t wait to see it for a second time, and live inside that world again.
(The Sound and the Fury plays through June 1st at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th Street between Bowery and 2nd Avenue. The show runs 2 hrs. 15 min. and plays: Tues. 7 pm, Wed.-Sat. 8 pm, Sun. at 7 pm. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200. Get $20 tickets for Sunday night performances. For more info, visit nytw.org.)