The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928)
nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
April 25, 2008
William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury is certainly not a beach-read, and while reading it can't be attempted lightly, it is a hugely rewarding and gorgeous text. With support from New York Theater Workshop, Elevator Repair Service in an admirable moment of lunacy has chosen to take on the first segment of this densely wrought Southern Gothic novel as a work for the stage. This incredibly ambitious project may fall a touch short but that is not for want of creativity and commitment on the part of ERS, and while not yet fully enough realized, the production does shows clear signs of evolving into a powerful piece. There is a lot to be fascinated by in this sound and fury.
Faulkner's novel consists of four segments about the Compson family that are told from different and highly subjective viewpoints. As seems to be the way in its era of American Southern literature, the Compsons are in decline. The parents are a mess and their children seem destined to outdo them. In this world in flux, the youngest Compson, Benjy, is most at the mercy of the changing fortunes. Benjy, who is described as an idiot in the book, has a fractured understanding that translates in the text as a stream-of-consciousness that veers back and forth between dates and years. The shifts occur suddenly as memories are stimulated. At one moment the world he is seeing is as a child at his grandmother's funeral, then suddenly he is looking at the family's former pasture that has been sold and is now a golf course; and there are a myriad of other points in between as several dates within a 20-year period of the family's fortunes are represented here.
The written work demands from the reader a certain willingness to suspend narrative comprehension in return for an uncommon experience of literary richness. This stage version makes the same demand to suspend the need for narrative consistency, but it is still sorting out how to make that experience rich and alive theatrically. The text is read by all of the characters, with the exception of the main Benjy (Susie Sokol). Characters speak their dialogue, sometimes adding "she said," and sometimes that indicator being added by the current reader. This creates an evocative and rhythmic effect that is neither overused nor performed relentlessly in the same manner, providing a wonderful sense of the text eddying around the ear. This faithfulness to the text's form does create a flow for the brokenness of the action and how the actors exchange the book itself—dropping, picking up, laying down, throwing, etc.—adds definition to the shape of the scenes. Amidst the narrative's disruptions, what comfort level can be achieved by the sensation of being read to, is created within this format.
To a limited extent, this production navigates the prose in its casting. For many of the characters, different actors will play a character at different points in time and that does help anchor where/when things are happening. It also allows for an occasional staging of the sense that both now and then are happening at once. While the different-actors-at-different-ages casting is usually clear, there are some actors who play the same character at all ages but the scheme is not comprehensibly consistent. Also, it is not always clear as to what point swapping actors as characters is being used. Specifically at one point on the golf course, the casting is swapped out in the middle of a scene, evidently because they could and for no other discernible reason, which served only to make me less trusting of the idea. It is an interesting device but incomplete. However this is a strong cast performing with lightness and quickness, and while I may not have always been clear on who was who, I was never in doubt that it was clear to them.
But I wanted to be as clear as they are, and there was enough working well in this production that I expect they can get to a place where the piece is still open to internal exploration among the cast while more fully supporting the audience's entry into the work. At the moment there is this phenomenal and intellectually interesting structure that mimics well what the novel does but does not quite bring me in. I don't have an investment in the production near as powerful as what I am seeing glimmers of among the cast. When I think about it, moments from The Sound and the Fury are touching but nothing was quite yet hitting at a visceral level. Yet it somehow seems fully possibly for this production to grow into that and beyond.
For the most part, the production is supported by design that is very strong, with a realistic but not overdone and useful set by David Zinn playing well with the character-specific costuming in the smartly simple design of Colleen Werthmann. These strong elements help make up for a sound design that is on occasion pointlessly loud, inconsistently veers between real and abstract, and frequently just annoyed. John Collins has done a remarkable job in his direction and the production feels very close to expressing the work on stage in a way that will be unique and vigorous.
For individuals unfamiliar with the novel this production may prove a bit frustrating and for folks who require a traditional narrative thread it will flat out induce insanity, but The Sound and the Fury as being realized by Elevator Repair Service is on its way to signifying an extraordinary theatrical event and I look forward to that time.