NEW YORK — If a production gets aborted in Manhattan, and the public never sees it, can it still make a splash?
It can if it’s the Elevator Repair Service’s “Gatz,” a stage version of “The Great Gatsby” that made it all the way to the end of rehearsals before being shut down by the Fitzgerald estate (which decided to endorse a different adaptation).
When he attended an open rehearsal of the ill-fated production, New York Theater Workshop a.d. Jim Nicola was so impressed with the five-hour show he sealed a deal to bring a similarly ambitious (but fully authorized) ERS adaptation to NYTW’s mainstage. A 12-actor performance of the opening quarter of the notoriously difficult William Faulkner novel, “The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928)” opens April 29.
“I decided to go easy on myself this time,” jokes ERS a.d. John Collins.
The literary-minded, New York-based company has a history of making theater the hard way: Collins loves the great writers as much as he loves messing with them, and it’s gotten him into trouble in the past.
“We already had a sort of performance arrangement with HERE (Arts Center) before we thought, ‘We’d better get permission for this.’ ” says Collins of “Gatz,” which incorporated the entire text of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. “We had never bothered to do that before.”
Collins recalls another performance that had the troupe teetering on the edge of hot water: ERS mounted “Cab Legs” at P.S. 122, a production of Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke” in which the actors threw out the text entirely, paraphrasing as they went along.
“P.S. 122 did get a call about it, because there was something in one of the papers on the show,” Collins recalls. The Williams estate called then-a.d. Mark Russell (who now runs the Under the Radar Festival) about the “Summer” connection, but Russell covered for ERS. “He said, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ ” Collins laughs.
In the 17 years since Collins founded ERS, the company has had a number of protective figures, of whom Nicola is the latest: Like other New York theater programmers (including the Public’s Oskar Eustis), he’s been pressuring the Fitzgerald estate to free up “Gatz” for a New York run. Nicola has also gone a step further, giving ERS its first official Off Broadway home.
.Though Collins’ company is on the verge of growing up and getting respectable, the director is still hoping to challenge his audience. “The Sound and the Fury” incorporates plenty of stage combat, as well as music and dancing, but it’s about as far from a CliffsNotes-like version as you can get. “We had to subject ourselves to Faulkner’s insanity, and ultimately the audience as well,” Collins says.
Like “Gatz,” “The Sound and the Fury” uses dozens of continuous pages of text, with the actors rotating between roles. Collins admits that the complicated staging will require close attention from the aud, but he says he felt obligated to be as faithful to the novel as he could.
“Otherwise, what are you doing?” Collins asks. “Why are you bothering with Faulkner?”
Actually, that’s a question not many companies would set out to answer. By trying, Collins and his actors are getting plenty of attention for their offbeat adaptations.
And if there was ever a time for the 25-year-old NYTW to take a gamble on a company that deserves support, that time is now. This summer, the nonprofit Off Broadway house will lose the income generated by its Broadway transfer of “Rent” when the long-running hit closes, and NYTW has cushioned the blow by recently laying off its entire inhouse production staff.
Legit pundits have decried the move as evidence of poor money management, pointing to the fact that NYTW is still expanding its physical facilities, “Rent” or no “Rent.” If the scrappy “Sound and the Fury” is well-received, it may help NYTW repair some damage.