Great writers put the lie to the adage that art imitates life, and William Faulkner was no exception. The unforgettable characters and stories of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County are enduring models of a way of seeing the American South in the early 20th century – plunged into a desperate poverty by the Civil War and clinging to memories of a decadent past (a style known as Southern Gothic) – much more than they are representations of life or people in Oxford, Mississippi, where the novelist lived and wrote.
By definition, however, theater is an art form that imitates life, where dramatizations of fiction typically struggle with how to be as representational as possible from the confines of the stage. Elevator Repair Service’s revival of its 2008 production of The Sound and The Fury, which opened at The Public Theater this week, does initially seem to promise a realistic interpretation of Faulkner’s novel. David Zinn’s meticulously furnished set evokes a politely decrepit southern homestead of upholstered armchairs, sturdy tables, fringed lampshades, heavy drapes, a radio and the occasional antique. The slew of characters in the Compson, Bascomb and Gibson families who form the novel’s core, articulate in lazy drawls and exclamations of a century ago and their stances and gestures mimic Mississippi’s antebellum racial dynamics of white landowners and their slaves.
But just as the thought dawns that an ironic verisimilitude is the objective here, a funny thing happens: Quentin (Mike Iveson), the eldest Compson son, and Luster (Ben Williams), the servant boy, jump into a line dance that is more hip-hop than Dixie two-step. The spell is broken, auguring that The Sound and The Fury will not be a straight reading – if that were possible – of Faulkner’s most difficult novel.
That novel, Faulkner’s fourth, relates the financial and moral demise of the Compson family, as seen on four distinct dates, each told by a different character. Its looping structure and stream-of-consciousness signaled radical shifts in American literature when the novel appeared in 1929, but The Sound and the Fury is best known for the section narrated by the Compson’s idiot son, Benjy: probably the first credible narrative ever written of mental illness, seen from the inside, a half-grasped, obsessively repetitive, but intensely sensory world.
Retaining only Benjy’s story from the novel’s sprawl, Elevator Repair Service delivers an expressionistic snapshot of the chaos of this once aristocratic family viewed, appropriately, by the most visible manifestation of its disorder. Benjy’s thoughts range abruptly between settings and situations in the novel, but director John Collins corrals all the action into the Compson’s living room, a choice which requires a certain agility from the set, the actors and our own imaginations. A sideboard serves double-duty as a fireplace, and a Christmas Day interior quickly becomes a golf course on a summer day. In particular, double-casting of all the roles allows the action to keep pace with Benjy’s careening thoughts. Some of these decisions help the audience keep track of which event Benjy is ruminating at the moment, while emphasizing his own confusion with people and events (for example, Benjy’s loving sister, Caddy, is played by both Tory Vazquez, as a young woman, and Rosie Goldensohn, as her bossy 10-year old iteration). Others seem to split a static character in two, as in the case of the children’s Mother, a guilt-tripping neurasthenic, whose mercurial personality is hinted at whenever Lucy Taylor and Vin Knight take turns wearing her nightdress and eye-shades.
As in Gatz, the company’s tour de force, nearly seven-hour, verbatim reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, The Sound and the Fury is a text-centered show, in that the story is told primarily by reading the novel out loud, with the cast passing back and forth a battered paperback copy to recite the narrative sections of Benjy’s observations. Unlike in Gatz, a pretense for this conceit is not established, perhaps because the mostly seamless alternating between narration and dialogue seems to aptly echo the fits and starts of Benjy’s mind.
As the 33-year old, developmentally impaired Benjy, Susie Sokol is the show’s focus. Although she shares the role with Aaron Landsman, Sokol plays no other character in the production, lending her interpretation the authenticity of the unique. Her Benjy is a bundle of nerves and raw energy, chafing at years of violence and neglect, not knowing why this is so or even that he is resigned to it. Her mostly immobile presence, on a chair placed in the middle of the living room, hands tucked deeply into the legs of her rolled up corduroys, gives Benjy the look of an asylum resident in a straight-jacket, but also serves as a kind of moral counterweight to the hysterics and antics of the rest of the family.
Benjy sometimes seems the most lucid of everyone in Faulkner’s novel, a possibility this production also entertains. For him, when the lights are turned off in his bedroom, “the dark go[es] in smooth, bright shapes,” a more comforting image than the dangers that abound in his waking moments. In Elevator Repair Service’s The Sound and the Fury, Quentin and Luster’s dance is a similar kaleidoscope of smoothly gliding forms that suggest both a movement to escape and the dancing shapes in Benjy’s mind.
Art shouldn’t imitate life but instead guide us to new ways of seeing. After Fitzgerald’s richly hued, sleekly depraved Roaring Twenties, Faulkner’s Southern Gothic follows closely on that period of excess, and, seen with the intensity of Elevator Repair Service’s sympathetic stare, looks at an America even more degenerate, even more in need of art’s gaze.