Reading Between the Lines

The most important advice I can impart to anyone considering attending the Elevator Repair Service’s (ERS’s) daring two-and-a-half hour reading-performance of The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928) is to first read or re-read William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, or at least its first section, which is what this production comprises. Otherwise, you may feel the overwhelming urge to flee the theater during intermission and hit the bookstore for guidance. Those who have read the novel may remember just how baffling it was; I can recall flinging the book across my college dorm room in frustration. Faithful to the book, this Off-Broadway production jumbles events from 17 separate days over a 20-year span; even those familiar with the story may be unclear about what is happening at any given time. The best solution for this production is to simply give yourself over to the chaos.

The title comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Life...is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The literal “idiot” in the heavily symbolic The Sound and the Fury is the innocent Benjy Compson, a 33-year old (the age of Jesus at his death) mentally challenged man often referred to by the novel’s other characters as “deef and dumb.” Despite his challenges, he somehow remembers conversations verbatim, though time and events blur with dazzling frequency.

If you think the book was confounding, wait until you see this play. With the exception of cursory descriptions of the Compsons projected on the wall and a family chart in the program, ERS does little to help us decipher the action; indeed it willfully does all it can to confuse the audience even further. Twelve actors each play up to four different roles of the 27 in total, and actors wantonly switch genders and races. There are even two Benjys of different sexes (Susie Sokol-unfortunately sporting what appears to be a George Harrison wig from the ‘60s-and Aaron Landsman). As “scenes” morph into each other, actors pass a paperback of the novel to each other and narrate or read the “lines” of whomever they happen to be representing at the time.

The production magnifies the text and often takes creative license by inserting music, dance (sometimes irritatingly overdone) and other action where it doesn’t occur in the book. The effect is to re-imagine the section as might a particularly whimsical reader. With ERS reading between these lines, the sound and the fury come often. Bickering and dissension in the family often devolve into food fights, smacks and screaming, causing Benjy to inaudibly cry or lash out by throwing things.

David Zinn’s set design impeccably replicates the sitting room of a family with means but in decline, as such a room might have existed in turn of the century Mississippi — replete with period photographs, carpeting, furniture and even a vintage radio. Matt Tierney’s sound design brings this all to a boil with a sometimes ear-splitting cacophony of banjo music, hollering, stomping and general tumult, the amplification and blurring of which bring Benjy to a state of bewilderment and hysteria he cannot express. John Collins’ direction is crisp and the actors are almost flawlessly rehearsed and choreographed, moving seamlessly between scenes and among themselves.

The question remains, though: does ERS break down the barriers between play and novel? Yes and no. I can recommend this production only to literary buffs and those who might nevertheless wish to dabble in its often-excruciating experimentalism.

By boldly presenting the confusion that a reader might feel, combining it with Benjy’s obvious discomposure and highlighting it all with cacophonous sounds and character chaos, ERS succeeds in challenging the audience and embracing the disorganization of what even Faulkner himself characterized as a four-part failure of sorts. And, in presenting the Compsons even more vividly than the book does, the production succeeds in evoking humor that may not flow from the text but seems entirely natural and appropriate nonetheless.

Yet, this same chaos, with interchangeable characters faithfully uttering every single word of text, including phrases such as “Caddy said” or “Jason said” or “T.P said,” as is necessary to keep track of the story’s proceedings, ironically serves to remind the audience just why a novel is a novel and not a play.

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