ERS’s “Sound and Fury” Signifying… Something
By Michael Giltz
When is a show a master stroke and a missed opportunity at the same time? When it’s a remounting of the Elevator Repair Service’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s The Sound And The Fury. That acclaimed production from 2008 made the name of ERS and spurred them on to further success like Gatz. Now they’ve put their money where their mouth is for a commercial run, giving those who missed it the first time around a chance to see . It’s a financial leap of faith even for a company that has proven itself via some sixteen different shows; Faulkner is hardly box office magic. Happily, the line for stand-by was lengthy the performance I attended, so ERS will have made a shrewd investment in its legacy.
But the missed opportunity is my reaction to excitedly seeing The Sound And The Fury for the first time. The 1929 novel is famously confounding in the initial section devoted to Benjy, the lengthy section they’ve chosen to adapt. Benjy is mentally challenged and Faulkner chose to leap back and forth in time almost at random. In some passages Benjy is a little boy, in others a teen and still others around 30 years old. Faulkner offers no rhyme or reason and unprepared readers are often bewildered. The rest of the book is straightforward and once you’ve got a handle on it, the Benjy section is hilarious and bleak and moving . All readers need is a little guidance. (You can search for “tips on how to read The Sound And The Fury for a very simple key to the text that won’t spoil it at all.) So a stage adaptation? Perfect. With actors playing certain roles along with visual and audio cues, one could easily make the leaps in time crystal clear without sacrificing the spirit of the work.
After all, an adaptation is supposed to offer something new and ERS might have offered a “Benjy” play that was moving and funny and brutal and sad. Surely you wantpeople seeing the show to get excited about this masterpiece? Surely you want them to rush out and say, “What have I been waiting for? Let’s read the book!” Instead, one imagines that most audience members will be just as perplexed at the end of this show as they were at the beginning. Reading the book will be the last thing on their mind, unless it’s with the conviction that there must be more to it than this.
Worse, now that I’ve seen three ERS adaptations of classic novels, their approach begins to seem a set formula. If you adapt three writers as distinctive and different as Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises), F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) and Faulkner, one would expect three radically different approaches to the material at hand, approaches that were very sympathetic to the wildly unique voices of the authors. But that doesn’t seem the case. As with Gatz, The Sound And The Fury is given a framing device. Here it seems more random and pointless: a family gathering at Christmas.
Bored relatives take to reading out passages of the book, often delivering them in a flat, affectless style. That’s contrasted with non sequiturs that pop in, such as random silly dances punctuating certain scenes. While the novel The Sound And The Furycries out for some clarity, they chose to have different actors tackle the same roles…and NOT assign actors to different stages of Benjy’s life. Maybe that would have been an obvious choice, but it certainly would have helped to have a clue as to what is going on and when. Audiences will get the general gist but not much more.
Essentially (and plot is not the point since much of it is revealed at the start), we are seeing a Mississippi family of some renown fallen on hard times and sinking farther. The sons turn to suicide or bitterness, the daughters cat around and the “idiot” Benjy is seen by most as a symbol of their disgrace. (The times are not kind to the mentally challenged.)
A few moments stand out, such as children arguing with vehemence in the kitchen when they’re supposed to keep quiet; the genuine sense of chaos they create is a highlight of the night. But time and again, I was thinking of what was missing from the book: Faulkner’s spot-on depiction of the feuding and one-upmanship that typifies siblings; the subtle shading of race relations; and most of all the humor. (This evening is only amusing in asides, whereas Faulkner’s text is wickedly funny on virtually every page.)
And I felt I’d seen this approach before, though of course Gatz came after. Would I have liked that show less if I’d seen The Sound And The Fury first? Perhaps not, sinceThe Great Gatsby is easily digestible and a model of clarity; that show simply hung together more readily. Still, it’s telling that my estimation of their three “novels” chart a downward path. Whatever order you see these shows in, the formula is wearing thin.
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