10 June 2008

The Sound and the Fury (April 7th, 1928)

I was surprised that some people left at intermission. After all, it was the final performance of Elevator Repair Service's production of The Sound and the Fury (April 7th, 1928) at New York Theatre Workshop, it was an extended run, and if you'd been exposed to any of the reviews or publicity, you would know that the script of this play was the actual, pretty much complete text of the first section of William Faulkner's novel, with the various characters recited or portrayed by multiple actors. If you want South Pacific, that's playing uptown.

Nonetheless, there was audience attrition. I sometimes forget that bewildering joys and joyful bewilderments are an esoteric taste. But I am deeply grateful to the ever-intrepid Liz G. for having the foresight to get tickets, and the great generosity to offer me one. (I should note here that NYTW has a great program called CheapTix Sundays, where tickets can be bought in advance for only $20. When the average Off-Broadway ticket these days tends to go for at least $55, it's great to have such programs helping to keep audiences at least somewhat diverse.)

The play began with the cast frozen on the set, distant sounds seeping from the radio upstage center, and some basic information about the main characters projected at the top of the stage. Then the first words, projected and then spoken: "Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting."

As anyone familiar with the novel knows, the I is Benjy, the mentally-handicapped "idiot", and April 7th, 1928 is his 33rd birthday. Benjy has no conception of time, and so his memories float through his present reality with little to indicate deep-past or near-past.

It's was difficult at first to make much sense of what was going on on-stage. Before the first words, actually, came clog dancing. Then Benjy's narration. A copy of the book was on stage, and sometimes actors read from it, but often -- particularly with dialogue -- they worked from memory. Sometimes they said their own speech tags, sometimes the speech tags were uttered sotto voce by another actor. The technique soon became mesmerizing, but it was also essential to our understanding who was who -- just because an actor was the black female servant Dilsey at one moment didn't mean that same actor could not soon become the white male Jason.

For all its weirdness, the ERS production was less bewildering on a first encounter than Faulkner's text itself, because the various time shifts were delineated with changes of actors, lighting, and/or sound. This may not have been obvious at first, but once the text started returning to certain scenes, it got much easier to comprehend.

The acting ranged over various styles, sometimes realistic, oftentimes not (at times, the play felt like The Three Stooges Meet Robert Duvall). The cast was extraordinarily versatile and precise, though -- particularly Susie Sokol, who only plays Benjy. She was like a great silent movie comedian who has been transported to the present day: her performance brilliantly physical, transfixing, every gesture and every glance efficient, controlled, and richly communicative. Though Benjy is the narrator of Faulkner's text, Sokol spoke less than most of the other actors, an effect both strangely intimate and unsettlingly distant -- though his thoughts and experiences were presented to us, Benjy himself remained a fascinating cipher.

It's been more than a week now since I saw the show, and it has remained vivid in my mind, a rare example of a play doing what, really, only a play could do -- the book is an entirely different experience, and a movie of the production would be different still (and, unless a brilliant director discovered a form that could extend the production's discoveries into the new medium, a film of the production would be a vastly lesser entity). This is what keeps theatre vital -- not productions that attempt to be sit-coms or movies-of-the-week, but productions that try to exploit the particular experiences that can be created by live actors in front of an audience.

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