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Novel Idea

Date: Apr 18, 2008


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Ever want to sit back and watch a novel? Elevator Repair Service, a cutting-edge troupe known for fashioning stage works from "found" materials not originally intended for the theatre, has recently made great American books their specialty.

And we're not talking about traditional adaptations: The troupe's seven-hour epic Gatz (not yet seen in New York due to rights issues) puts every word of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby onstage. Now, in what constitutes ERS' long-overdue official Off-Broadway debut, they've tackled "April Seventh, 1928," the decidedly odd first chapter of William Faulkner's 1929 positively strange novel The Sound and the Fury, opening Apr. 25 at New York Theatre Workshop.

This makes for a daunting mix of expectation and ambition, admits John Collins, ERS' founding artistic director.

"This a higher-profile premiere for us, and it's one of our riskier pieces," Collins says. "It's both exciting and a little scary. It may be the most challenging material we've taken on. It's a famously difficult novel, and it's dark. It has a real serious side to it, which is not to say we don't find humor in it--we wouldn't do it if it weren't fun and entertaining."

The first chapter of Faulkner's Southern Gothic tale of a declining family, written in a groundbreaking stream-of-conscious style, is told from the point of Benjy Compson, an adult with mental retardation--or, as Collins can see in retrospect, some form of autism.

"The more research we do on autism, the more Benjy seems to fit," Collins says. "The way Faulkner describes the character is that he's a total innocent." The mandate of ERS' production, then, is to "commit to seeing the whole world through that point of view, not to conveying an impression of Benjy from the outside." As Collins explains, this should help his 12-member cast "avoid some of the clichés of autism."

After basing work on everything from the writings of William and Henry James (Room Tone), Euripides (Highway to Tomorrow), obscure vintage-radio scripts (Shut Up I Tell You) and an imagined collaboration between Dali and the Marx Brothers (The Marx Brothers on Horseback Salad), why have Collins and ERS hit the books?

"American literature from that part of the 20th century feels to me just strange enough," Collins says. "It's not quite 100 years ago, so its language has an ability to drift between something that feels like it could be happening right now and something very distant. I like that about it."

Faulkner was also a likely choice, since, as the Chapel Hill, N.C. native Collins confesses, "A bunch of us in the company are Southerners, and I've been a little bit obsessed with The Sound and the Fury. It's got the stream-of-consciousness approach, but it's still got a kind of lightness to it."

Any English student who struggled through the novel may balk at that last comment, but Collins points out that reading its strange words aloud has helped the novel feel more approachable.

"Hearing it aloud took away some of the burden of solving the whole puzzle of it," Collins says. "Looking at it on the page, I got the message that I had to figure out everything. But to hear the music of it, the poetry of it, actually helped me relax that part of my brain that was straining to figure it out. That is the special providence of theatre."

It is theatre, yes--but of a very particular, hybridized kind. It takes a special theatrical imagination to realize that the image of actors reading aloud from a book could be not only stage-worthy but to exert a special kind of magic.

"One actor reading to the audience is actually a simple and beautiful and transformative theatrical act," Collins says. "That's the foundation I'm working with. There's an interesting tension and exchange between the very private experience of reading and the very public experience of live performance, and I enjoy throwing those two at each other without mediating."

Lest audiences fear they'll be watching a bedtime story hour, Collins is quick to add: "The piece is about our encounter with the book. I can't say we're not interpreting or offering our own imagery, but it's not a traditional adaptation. This is a novel; this is not a play that we created when we adapted the novel to the stage."

A novel concept, indeed.

Click here for more information about The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928).

(Photo by Ariana Smart Truman, featuring l. to r.: Mike Iveson, Annie McNamara, Suzie Sokol, Kate Scelsa, Ben Williams.)