NEW YORK—Seamlessly combining the epic, intimate, and mundane, Elevator Repair Service continues their practice of bringing literary classics to life with the presentation of the first chapter of William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” now at the Public Theater.
The show program contains a quote from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” which reads in part, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing”—to which could be added “and everything” when applied to this production.
Spanning 1898 to 1928, the story focuses on the lives of the Compsons, a somewhat well-off Mississippi family, and the Gibsons, their African-American servants. In this chapter of the novel, everything that happens is seen through the eyes of the mentally challenged Benjy Compson (Susie Sokol, Aaron Landsman). Someone describes him as being 3 years old for 30 years.
Little of what is presented happens in chronological order. Scenes are juxtaposed with one another, and characters come and go in a sort of free-flowing narrative. None of the events carry any more particular meaning for Benjy than any other. A funeral, for example, has as much significance in his mind as the sudden appearance of a golfer or a loud dispute in which a birthday cake plays a central part.
Ironically, it’s Benjy, the one character who doesn’t speak, who turns out to be the most fascinating. Faulkner shows through this character how every human being is completely unique in his own right. Indeed, one can’t help but wonder just what Benjy is thinking and feeling as events play out around him.
Benjy obviously understands enough of what’s going on around him to recall events and also has a strong emotional connection to his sister Caddy (Tory Vazquez). She’s the only person, other than his perennially overwrought and overprotective mother (Lucy Taylor), who feels any sort of empathy toward him.
Everyone around Benjy says exactly what they feel or think to him, no matter how hurtful or strange it may sound to us, simply because they know Benjy cannot repeat what he hears to anyone. He thus becomes a sort of confessor and witness to all that goes on around him, all the while recording it in his memory with an uncondemning and unbiased eye.
Most striking of all is that Elevator Repair Service is able to slowly yet inexorably bring the audience into the story. The company both sets the stage for what is to follow and uses the audience’s imagination to help fill in the blanks.
The company has succeeded with this same practice in the past with such works as “The Great Gatsby” and “The Sun Also Rises.” They are certainly not the only group that transfers novels to the stage, and thus—it is hoped—make one want to read the book from which it originated. Yet while many other such companies bring the story to life through the narrative, Elevator Repair Service concentrates more on the characterizations, making each person fully fleshed out and completely real.
This effort is even more impressive when taking into account there’s no regard for race, sex, or at times age when it comes to portraying the various characters. Many characters are played by multiple actors while maintaining the same distinctive inner voice and personality throughout.
Nor does it matter that spoilers regarding what eventually will happen to these people are revealed early on. The stage production is so engrossing that one eagerly awaits what will happen to those involved.
Of particular acting note is Vazquez as Caddy, Sokol as Benjy, and Greig Sargeant as Dilsey, the family cook and housekeeper who holds both the Compsons and her own family together with some common sense, a resigned sense of humor, and, when necessary, a meat cleaver.
Also in the cast are Mike Iveson, Ben Jalosa Williams, Pete Simpson, Vin Knight, Kaneza Schaal, Daphne Gaines, Randolph Curtis Rand, Rosie Goldensohn, and Maggie Hoffman.
‘The Sound and the Fury’
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette St.
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or PublicTheater.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: July 12
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.