The Bergen Record May 22, 2015

The Sound and the FuryPress

‘The Sound and the Fury’

By Robert Feldberg

 

Most theatergoers, I expect, appreciate plays that don’t spell things out in capital letters. Nuance, indirection, ambiguity can all be good things. Pleasure ceases, though, at near-total befuddlement.

I’m sure members of the Elevator Repair Service theater company, who conceived the adaptation of “The Sound and the Fury” that opened in a revival Thursday night at the Public Theater, have good theatrical reasons for everything that happens onstage. The problem is that we’re seldom in on them.

If you’re familiar with William Faulkner’s classic 1929 novel about the ill-starred Compsons, a once-aristocratic Southern family gone to seed, the play will be maddening to try to follow. If you don’t know it, you’ll likely feel adrift in a sea of gibberish. And that’s with explanatory projections above the stage and a family tree printed in the program.

Elevator Repair Service has created a niche as a presenter of iconic American novels, with the goal of having the audience experience the works as a combined dramatic and narrative experience. (Portions of the novels are read aloud by the actors.) Its projects have included “Gatz,” a version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” that ran for more than six hours, and “The Select (The Sun Also Rises),” an abridged adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel.

Compared to those relatively straightforward books, though, “The Sound and the Fury” is an especially daunting challenge – especially the non-linear first of its four sections, which is the one the company chose to dramatize.

It’s narrated by Benjy Compson, a mentally retarded man with the comprehension of a small child. His memories are unfiltered, stream-of-consciousness fragments; since he has no conception of time, the reader has to puzzle out not only what he’s describing, but when it happened. What the stage version, initially performed off-Broadway in 2008, attempts to do is present the world of the sizable Compson family and its servants as Benjy might perceive it.

There are random noises and constant movement, with men occasionally breaking into synchronized dances, accompanied by banjo music.

Most of the dozen actors play multiple roles, and it’s not always clear who’s who at any particular time. Confusion is added by having the actors often jump into characters who are a different gender, race or age than they are.

On top of that, many of the characters are played by more than one performer. Benjy, for example, is mostly portrayed by actress Susie Sokol, but also, at different times, by two male actors. And Dilsey, an African-American servant, is played by a black woman and a pair of white men.

I imagine the aim of the production, directed by John Collins, is to have the audience sink into Benjy’s skewed consciousness, even if it mightn’t pick up on each thing that happens.

For me, that connection never took place. “The Sound and the Fury” came across as a hectic theatrical experiment, viewed from a distance.

 

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