Saturday, May 10, 2008

Signifying Something (Theatre - The Sound and the Fury)

In April Seventh 1928 - the first part of the psychedelic-poetic masterpiece that is The Sound and the Fury - Faulkner (you know you're important in literature when they drop your first name) evokes that day in the life of the Compson family and their servants as experienced through Benjy, their mentally retarded son. It is Benjy's thirty-third birthday and he is cared for by a teenage servant, Luster. He experiences the world around him as a series of sensory impressions which evoke memories, particularly of his sister, Caddy, but the world of past and present are indistinguishable for him. He sits in a chair, for example, catching his shirt on a nail and that reminds him of another moment in which he got caught on the same nail and instantly he is there in the sensory experiences of that previous moment. In a large way the book chronicles the dissolution of this family - the mother's hypochondria, the father's alcoholism, the sister's promiscuity, the brother's suicide (and some might say by extension the dissolution of a certain way of life for America's Southern gentry). Elevator Repair Service, the 17-year-old experimental theater ensemble that adapted this first part of of novel, has evoked this continual journeying to the past as a kind of longing. It's not uncommon for someone whose present circumstances are less than pleasant to become nostalgic. It is as if Benjy is in a perpetual loop of nostalgia, which makes his character function symbolically as the spirit of a more innocent South now gone. Theatrically he functions as our tripwire into a place where time will not stand still. His psychedelic-synesthetic experience of all times as one renders people as smells, objects as texture, and the tumult of his less than perfect home circumstances as a raucous repetitive dance for which this wildly inventive company find a physical life on stage that is appropriate to the novel and theatrically enveloping, even hypnotic. Multiple actors plays the same roles irrespective of their ages, sexes, or skin color. The set is a meticulously detailed dining and living room section of the house in which they create all the other spaces theatrically - a tree is created by piling up furniture, an armchair becomes a horse and buggy. They read directly from the novel on stage, taking turns as narrators, but also playing their own narrators as they play the characters. I believe they actually adapt every word of this section of the novel, including 'Caddy said.' Evidently they did the same with their marathon adaptation of The Great Gatsby - performing in that case the entire novel - I am absolutely dying to see this production called Gatz. For some reason I cannot understand, the rights were not given for a New York production. With every word, of April Seventh 1928 they are constrained to a 2 hour and 45 minute evening which ends up feeling just a little long. There are just two things I wished they would have done with this fantastic adaptation - their theatrical story telling is so inventive but they use up all their tricks in the first act, leaving the physical life of Act II without any surprises. I wished they had saved us one surprise. There is a moment in Act II in which Benjy is, I believe, taken off to a hospital. A white-figure appears and whisks him out through the door and following him Dilsey, the family's cook, sadly shakes her head and returns to the kitchen. It was extremely subtle and beautiful moment - but I wasn't quite sure what I was seeing, so quickly did it go by. It occurred perhaps 20 minutes before the end - what was going on there? Was that Benjy's medical castration? It passed in a flash but seemed important thematically. It seemed to herald a change, an ending which could have been evoked visually to effect an ending to the play. The one element of the adaptation that didn't quite work for me was the fact that the novel revolves around the men's relationship to Caddy while the play, adapting only one section, revolves around Benjy. I think it's smart to center the play around Benjy's but the words of the chapter's ending center around Caddy. Visually when Benjy's was whisked out the door, I felt the evening had ended and then the rest of the act felt long. That said, I hate it when people respond to something I've made on stage by telling me what I should have done differently. Do your own version, I want to say. The best response would probably be Faulkner's own description about the creative process that produced The Sound and the Fury (from the supplemental information on the New York Theater Workshop's website) :

... I wrote that same story four times. None of them were right, but I had anguished so much that I could not throw any of it away and start over, so I printed [the novel] in the four sections. That was not a deliberate tour de force at all, the book just grew that way. That I was still trying to tell one story which moved me very much and each time I failed,but I had put so much anguish into it that I couldn't throw it away,like the mother that had four bad children, that she would have been better off if they all had been eliminated, but she couldn't relinquish any of them. And that's the reason I have the most tenderness for that book, because it failed four times.

I guess that means that ERS should get at least four chances. There probably isn't going to be an adaptation of this famously complicated novel that is likely to get much better than this one. In its totality I found this was an affecting and involving evening of theater, full of invention, with a mesmerizing, multi-layered sound scape that I have to single out as one of the most effective contributions to the evening. It was designed by Matt Tierney. The production hosted by New York Theatre Workshop, one of my favorite off-Broadway companies, has been extended until June 1. If you're in the area I highly recommend it and the link to the theater can lead you to tickets. ERS also tours both around the US and Europe so you may be able to catch them some time at a theater closer to home.

...Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

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