NEW YORK — In its new staging of “The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928),” experimental theater troupe Elevator Repair Service has created a new form of dramatic expression: stream-of-consciousness theater.
Now on view at off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop, the company has chosen to produce the first section of William Faulkner’s brooding Southern gothic novel while completely preserving its chaotic nonlinear structure. The result is a fever-dream of a play, one that washes over the audience as an impressionistic collection of sensations that slowly coalesces into a cohesive narrative.
Set in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Miss., “The Sound and the Fury” was written in 1929 and describes the dissolution of the Compson family. “April Seventh, 1928” is told from the point of view of Benjy Compson, who is mute and mentally disabled. Benjy’s version of the family history ping-pongs through periods of time from 1898 through 1928.
Elevator Repair Service portrays this shifting perspective on stage by having different actors play multiple parts at different periods in Benjy’s life. Benjy, though, is played almost entirely throughout by a haunting Susie Sokol. Sokol delivers a finely nuanced, wordless performance. Benjy’s fear, joy and confusion are all beautifully expressed through Sokol’s saucerlike eyes and gangly, awkward movements.
Other acting standouts spinning in Benjy’s orbit include Vin Knight as his brother Jason; Tory Vasquez and Kate Scelsa, who both play his favorite sibling, Candace (“Caddy”); and Annie McNamara as Caroline, the clan’s neurotic matriarch.
Knight is particularly effective as the pouty and stubborn Jason, bringing a real sense of comic relief to these dark proceedings. Vasquez and Sokol have an especially strong bond — their scenes movingly illustrate the only tenderness Benjy has ever known.
Various actors, holding the actual novel, pass it off to one another to read narration when the time periods change. The other cast members play out the action, interrupting the narrator to speak their character’s dialogue. At times, they will add a jolting “he said” or “she said” tag to the end of a line. This quirk, unfortunately, only takes the audience out of Benjy’s head and doesn’t serve the show’s otherwise dreamlike quality.
Last year, Elevator Repair Service put on “Gatz,” a seven-hour performance of “The Great Gatsby” in its entirety. “Gatz” received glowing reviews in Europe, but a dispute over rights has prevented its production in New York. The company, founded by John Collins in 1991, also has staged re-creations of vintage television interviews of Jack Kerouac using actual transcripts and a version of Euripides’ “The Bacchae” where Dionysus shows up as a thermos.
Company members have developed their own stylized choreography, used here at certain early transitional points in the show. This robotic vaudeville is accompanied by fuzzy Tin Pan Alley-esque tunes emanating from a large console radio. Sound design, by Matt Tierney, further enhances the experience of being inside Benjy’s jumbled memories. A fantastically detailed Depression-era set, by David Zinn, serves to physically ground the disorienting action, which all happens in the Compson’s living room.
Director Collins has said that merely adapting the novel would have felt too safe, adding, “And if something feels safe warning bells start going off with me.” His alarms should all fall silent with this production.