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What's Real in "The Select?"

Date: Sep 16, 2011


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Elevator Repair Service's new show The Select (The Sun Also Rises) is a lot of fun, but in between the stellar performances, ingenious sound design, and funky dance breaks, it asks startling questions about reality. As in: What makes something "realistic" in the theatre, and what do we gain when something on stage seems "real?"

If you know the company, then these questions aren't surprising. For twenty years, Elevator Repair Service has made its name with entertaining, experimental explorations of big ideas. In The Select, now playing at New York Theatre Workshop, they adapt Ernest Hemingway's classic novel The Sun Also Rises with typical flair.

It's possible, of course, just to sit back and enjoy their imaginative take on the book, which follows a group of American and British expats on a series of drunken, lusty adventures in France and Spain. A bullfight, for instance, is recreated when an actor grabs the end of a table and pushes it around, chasing a co-star who's dressed like a matador. In another scene, we know two characters are on a fishing trip because fake fish get hurled across the stage.

But if you want the big ideas, they're waiting for you.

Consider this: Two of the cast members---Matt Tierney and Ben Williams---also designed the production's sound. When they're not in a scene, they often stand behind a podium at the back of the stage, manipulating a hidden set of computers and keyboards to create sound effects. We can clearly see them, and at first, it's easy to think they're still in character. The set looks like an old-fashioned bar, so maybe they're just back there hanging out, providing "atmosphere."

Near the end of the bullfight, though, the podium gets removed, and we see the computers and instruments.  Tierney plays a character named Robert Cohn, and after Cohn leaves the story, he comes back in his street clothes to operate the sound board. "This was a way of letting the whole idea of Robert Cohn evaporate, but still have Matt there" says director John Collins. "That's attractive to me because it suggests that the character was just somebody who inhabited Matt Tierney but now the character's gone and Matt's still here."

So which one is more "real?" Robert Cohn or Matt Tierney?  The podium in the bar or the exposed computers?

You could certainly argue it's more realistic to hide the sound equipment and always keep the actors in costume. After all, Hemingway's novel has realistic speech, and the story is full of believable situations.

But don't we always know we're in a theatre? Isn't it more "real" to acknowledge that Matt Tierney is not really Robert Cohn and that the exaggerated sound of wine pouring out of a bottle is created by a computer? Collins says, "It's an old obsession of mine, this idea of theatre as something that is unique because it exists in the same room as the audience. In earlier shows we made, I was obsessed with reminding the audience that the actors knew they were there."

He adds, "That sensation---that we all know we're all here---contributes to that mystical feeling you get from a good performance."

For now, Collins enjoys combining realism with theatricality. "Letting these styles interrupt each other feels truthful to me," he says. "It will feel like an interruption or a contradiction, but it's a lot about having faith that no matter how unexpected the result might be, it's going to feel truthful in the end."


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor