In downtown theater, Elevator Repair Service has long been dubbed an Important Company, earning an adventurous reputation with wild, literary-minded experiments like a 6½ hour adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.” Now, as it storms New York Theater Workshop with an adaptation of William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” ERS is playing its most mainstream venue to date. To the company’s credit, it hasn’t sold out with an obvious crowd-pleaser.
Instead, the troupe is staging the strangest chapter from one of literature’s most demanding masterpieces. Incorporating almost every word from the novel’s first section, ERS creates a theatrical language as complex as Faulkner’s literary technique, and the result is both maddening and exquisite.
The greatest achievement is a design that simultaneously evokes the mind of a mentally challenged man and the symbolic collapse of his genteel Southern family.
Before the show begins, we see the first floor of an antebellum mansion, handsomely detailed by set designer David Zinn. The Christmas tree sparkling in an upstage parlor and the wood-paneled radio sitting in the living room suggest the Norman Rockwell dream. Even when scenes occur outside, the action remains in these rooms, reminding us of an ideal the Compson family can’t achieve.
After projected text outlines the major plot points — sister Candace gets pregnant out of wedlock, brother Quentin kills himself, hateful brother Jason castrates his “idiot” sibling Benjy — the stage explodes with the family’s dysfunction. Among other flourishes, the radio crackles with broken bits of song, the table lamps veer between harsh glare and eerie dimness, and the chirping of cicadas gets so loud it drowns out lines of dialogue.
The cast mirrors the sensory overload. Since the story is told from Benjy’s addled perspective, it constantly jumps through time, with the actors changing roles during every shift. As Benjy’s mother sits in her chair, loudly predicting her death, she might be played by a white woman one moment and a black man in the next. Or there might be two actors playing her at once, one in the chair and another creeping around upstage.
Sometimes, actors drop their roles altogether. While two of Benjy’s relatives are chatting, two other thesps will do a stylized dance. It’s as if the jig happens in another reality. Ultimately, that’s the show’s metier: Multiple worlds exist side by side, and they compete for attention.
In one sense, we’re seeing every family crisis get reenacted at once, like a perpetual echo of their shame. In another sense, though, we’re seeing into Benjy’s life. The overlapping memories, odd sounds and bizarre light tell us how he sees the world, his point of view becoming a metaphor for cultural problems in Reconstruction era South.
Director (and ERS founder) John Collins keeps a firm grip on these stimuli. After the initial shock of strangeness, it’s possible to track who’s playing whom and which time period they are in.
And despite their shifting roles, the actors also manage specific performances. Vin Knight especially impresses as Mother Compson, mixing elegance into the character’s constant complaining. Even in enormous sunglasses and a faded nightgown, he moves like a lady who went to finishing school, resting his hand just so on Mr. Compson’s arm or sitting with careful posture.
The entire ensemble deserves praise for finding the vivid rhythms in Faulkner’s language, which often rolls across the page without punctuation. The actors pull laughs out of surprising line readings, and they communicate a realism not immediately obvious in the text.
But their studiousness is also an obstacle. Collins and company seem more interested in Faulkner’s style than in the story he’s telling. The author uses his devices to serve a larger human drama, but in this production, feelings rarely break through. ERS works with intelligence and imagination, but their efforts would be even more rewarding if they balanced their cleverness with simple, raw emotion.