In 1929, William Faulkner presented the typed manuscript of The Sound and the Fury to his literary agent with the warning, “It’s a real sonofabitch.” Elevator Repair Service’s John Collins can’t help but agree. “I’m with him on that,” he sighs. For over a year, Collins has steeped himself in the novel with the aim of directing a verbatim stage adaptation of its first chapter, a production that begins previews at New York Theatre Workshop on April 5. The Sound and the Fury (April 7th, 1928) will mark ERS’s first-ever mainstage Off-Broadway production.
The novel The Sound and the Fury consists of four sections: the first told by Benjy Compson, whom Faulkner bluntly describes as “an idiot”; the second by his elder brother Quentin; the third by his eldest brother Jason; and the last by a third-person narrator. Originally, ERS attempted to secure the rights to the entire novel, but they believed those rights were not available. (A representative for the Faulkner Estate demurs.) Nevertheless, the estate and ERS agreed on the rights to the Benjy section. A contretemps with the Fitzgerald estate has prevented ERS from staging Gatz, their acclaimed version of The Great Gatsby, in New York. The company wanted to avoid any similar complication for this show.
Having spent years assembling and touring Gatz, one wouldn’t have expected ERS to turn immediately toward another great American novel. Or another novel at all. But in their 16 years as an Off-Off-Broadway company, ERS have rarely made predictable choices: Their show Cab Legs paraphrased Tennessee Williams and Bollywood films; Room Tone performed The Turn of the Screw in the dark; Highway to Tomorrow, their version of The Bacchae, featured a thermos in a lead role. “We get tired of doing the same thing,” says Collins. When choosing a new project, “We always say, ‘What would we never do?’. . . This time around, [a group member] jokingly proposed at a meeting, ‘Well, I guess the thing we’d never do at this point is the same thing twice.’ So we said, ‘OK, we’ll do another novel.’ “
Many in ERS had long admired Faulkner. For weeks they worked through his canon, reading the books aloud to one another. (How their heads must have been swimming with incest, madness, and horror.) Collins recalls that the Benjy section “seemed the most transformed by being read aloud. The intimidating narrative structural complexity lightened.”
In an essay, Faulkner insisted: “The story is all there, in the first section as Benjy told it. I did not try deliberately to make it obscure.” But it is obscure, for the reader and likely for the audience member. Benjy has the intellect of a very young child, yet he possesses a powerful, almost photographic memory. A word, a sight, a smell can send him spinning into the past. In his section of the novel, he remembers 20 different events—some of them as many as a dozen times—all jumbled out of order. Throughout, he remains mute.
Susie Sokol, who shares the role with Aaron Landsman, at first resisted playing Benjy. Collins assigned it to her “because I’d missed a few rehearsals,” she says. “I was really mad, because I wouldn’t be able to speak. We had fisticuffs with each other.” But she’s come to embrace the role, observing her classroom of St. Ann’s second-graders (Sokol’s day job) to prepare.
Collins, Sokol, Landsman, 10 other cast members, and the design team have a month before the show’s first preview, and lots left to do. A work-in-progress showing in January revealed a spirited, disarming, but confusing piece—the actors frequently switching roles with little regard to appropriate race or gender. The group will spend much of the remaining weeks trying to make the play accessible. “That’s a challenge for me,” says Collins, “to bring this to an audience so they can lose themselves in it and enjoy it, in spite of its toughness.” As challenges go, it’s a sonofabitch.
Spring Theater Picks
The Drunken City
Starts March 13
New Yorkers aren’t exactly teetotalers (alcohol consumption increased markedly after 9/11 and remains high), yet it’s rare that the whole town itself ties one on. But that’s precisely what happens in Adam Bock’s new comedy, in which a bar crawl by three brides-to-be causes the city to stumble and stagger. Trip Cullman directs the dipsomania. Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, 212-279-4200
A Catered Affair
Starts March 25
Mr. Harvey Fierstein and Mr. John Bucchino request your attendance at their new nuptial musical, based on Paddy Chayefsky’s teleplay and Gore Vidal’s screenplay. Faith Prince, Tom Wopat, and the versatile Fierstein star in this story about a couple attempting to afford their daughter’s wedding. Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street, 212-239-6200
The Civilians’ Paris Commune
Starts April 4
“Do you hear the people sing?” Not to fret, this musical may be set in Paris and upon the barricades, but it would be difficult to mistake the pop-savvy tunes of Michael Friedman for the bombast of Les Misérables. Semi-documentarians the Civilians investigate the 1871 revolution. The Joseph Papp Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, 212-967-7555
Sizwe Banzi Is Dead
Starts April 8
When John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who created the piece with Athol Fugard, first performed this play in 1972, they were jailed. Long since freed and very much alive, Kani, Ntshona, and Fugard will revive Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, about a man who commits a necessary act of identity theft. BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton Street, 212-636-4100
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Starts April 11
Technological innovations have long since destroyed the epistolary novel—”I American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, 212-719-1300
Starts April 15
Sure, Pope Joan and Patient Griselda are very impressive ladies. But can they top Elizabeth Marvel and Martha Plimpton? Those actresses will play the famous femmes, as well as a score of other women, in this Broadway revival of Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play. Biltmore Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, 212-239-6200
Steve and Idi
Starts April 23
Idi Amin once said: “I myself consider myself the most powerful figure in the world.” But is he qualified to give relationship advice? In David Grimm’s comedy, it’s the African dictator, or a hallucination of him, that Steve turns to when his boyfriend deserts him. Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, 212-868-4444
Starts May 6
This biography of artist Louise Nevelson should have debuted during Edward Albee’s Signature season a few years ago, but the illness of star Anne Bancroft prevented it. Now, Mercedes Ruehl has agreed to slip on Nevelson’s smock. Pam MacKinnon directs. Signature Theater, 555 West 42nd Street, 212-244-7529
Starts May 7
There are thousands of varieties of frogs and nearly as many translations and adaptations of the Aristophanes comedy of the same name. Director David Herskovits and playwright David Greenspan offer the latest, which features an amphibian chorus. Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, 212-352-3101