The New York Times May 21, 2015

The Sound and the FuryPress

Review: ‘The Sound and the Fury,’ Elevator Repair Service’s Take on Faulkner

By Ben Brantley

 

Time flies and crawls, warps and balances, melts and freezes. It passes by before you know it and it stands still forever. All those contradictory kinetic clichés are pulsing away in Elevator Repair Service’s mesmerizing “The Sound and the Fury,” which opened on Thursday night at the Public Theater.

Adapted from the opening section of William Faulkner’s 1929 novel — the chapter titled “April Seventh, 1928” —this sprawling but surreally symmetrical production dares to try to capture onstage one of the most dizzyingly subjective points of view ever committed to print. For the narrator here is a man with the mind of a child, someone who, as another character describes him, has “been 3 years old 30 years.”

This man-child’s name is Benjamin, though it was once Maury, and a lot of people call him Benjy. Trying to figure out what Benjy knows has been the bane and delight of countless modern comp-lit students. Many a densely written book has been devoted to Benjy’s way with words, which is a lot less arbitrary than it seems.

But as far as I know, Elevator Repair Service is the first theater company to transform everything that’s said, thought and done in “April Seventh, 1928” into a sustained theatrical spectacle. I saw an earlier version of this “Sound and the Fury” at the New York Theater Workshop seven years ago.

Directed by John Collins, the production has grown bigger and richer in its current incarnation. It is more sprawling than I remember, and may have lost a bit of its hypnotic focus. But it remains as mystifying and enlightening as one of those dreams that seem to explain everything for as long as you’re asleep.

The antic but rigorous Elevator Repair Service is fast becoming the thinking theatergoer’s favorite book club, with adaptations of American classics that turn the act of reading into not just acting but action — a dynamic physical process. These include “The Select (The Sun Also Rises),” a riff on Ernest Hemingway’s first major novel, and “Gatz,” its extraordinary six-plus-hours, line-for-line rendering of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”

“The Sound and the Fury” requires a fuller leap of faith — and a more furrowed brow. This is suited to a work of literature that asks readers to become armchair sleuths, extracting a core of shimmering truth from Benjy’s clouded thoughts. This production holds on to the confusion as well as the clarity, with every performer onstage becoming a sort of industrious surrogate detective for us.

The whole sorry, decades-spanning history of Benjy’s immediate family — the fast-declining Compson clan of Mississippi — is in evidence in “April Seventh, 1928.” But to unfold that history demands both a close reading and a willingness to go with the flow of a narrative unlike any other.

Elevator Repair Service pursues this double goal with military discipline and expansive imagination. The production takes place in a large living room that, as designed by David Zinn, exudes a cluttered, well-worn comfort, with its frayed rugs and ornately shaded lamps. At first, it suggests an unchanging place that is fixed unconditionally in memory, in that way we sometimes think of our childhood homes.

But everything in an Elevator Repair Service production is subject to flux. And this carefully appointed room will be disrupted, rearranged and thoroughly trashed as we move with Benjy through his memories of the only world he has ever known. The impression is of being somewhere that never changes and yet is always changing.

This paradox is given active, vivid life by an ensemble of a dozen who, with lightning costume changes (and occasional dance moves), portray the Compsons and their African-American servants. Conventions of race, age and gender are suspended. Most of the performers play many characters and often take turns portraying a single figure.

Susie Sokol, on the other hand, is Benjy throughout (though occasionally Aaron Landsman also takes on the role). As she embodies him, he is an actively passive presence, a person who registers even his own behavior as something happening outside himself.

Her face is usually blank, but she twists her body into convolutions to convey her character’s disorientation. It isn’t hard to disorient Benjy: just put him in a moving vehicle or ply him with liquor.

The bellows of distress that Benjy regularly gives way to when he feels sad or thwarted come not from Ms. Sokol but, it would seem, from the air. (Matt Tierney did the astonishing sound design, which is matched in tone by Mark Barton’s liquid lighting.) Those wails become a sustained elegy, of sorts, for a familial procession to the graveyard.

Different performers read from a battered copy of Faulkner’s novel. Often their voices are neutral, though underlined by the meditative intensity of a reader trying to figure out what’s on the page. But when Tory Vazquez, who plays Benjy’s beloved lost sister, Caddy, at different ages, takes over the narration, you hear the throb of empathy for the bewildered figure at the production’s center.

Sentences from the book are sometimes projected onto the walls, as are short biographical descriptions of the characters. If you haven’t read “The Sound and the Fury” (preferably recently), you’re still likely to be at sea. But if you keep your senses wide open, you’ll be aware of patterns forming, the kind that seem to spring up unbidden in your memory, when one chapter of your past suddenly links to another.

Every so often the stage is emptied, and there’s not a noise to be heard. Yet you feel somehow that all that sound and fury is still going on, reverberant with the endless echoes you associate with old, abandoned houses. The times portrayed here, after all, never stop happening, not as long as there are readers of Faulkner’s book.

Correction: May 23, 2015 

A theater review on Friday about “The Sound and the Fury,” performed by Elevator Repair Service at the Public Theater, misspelled the surname of a cast member. As the listing of credits and a picture caption correctly noted, she is Tory Vazquez, not Vasquez. The review also referred incorrectly to Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” the basis of another work by Elevator Repair Service. It was his first major novel, not his first novel. (“The Torrents of Spring,” a shorter work, was his first.)

 

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