Sometime in the second half of The Sun Also Rises (The Select)—Elevator Repair Service’s new show, adapted from Hemingway’s 1926 novel, making its American debut at Philadelphia’s Live Arts Festival—you begin to wonder if you ought to stage some sort of intervention. Sure, the booze the actors quaff so ceaselessly is likely grape juice and weak tea, but the amount of alcohol putatively slurped and swigged and swilled seems to guarantee every cast member a stomach pumping.
From scene to scene, as Hemingway’s band of lost generation expatriates travel from Paris to Pamplan to Madrid, the characters lap at Pernod, brandy, champagne, vin de pays, bourbon and sodas, and olive-garnished martinis. The sight of Ben Williams as the American author Bill Girton, swallowing the dregs of every glass on the table, makes you worry you’ll get a hangover just watching him. Certainly the literally hundreds of wine, beer, and liquor bottles that line David Zinn’s set suggest a problem. Who but the cast must have emptied them? The liver boggles.
Unlike their transcendent Gatz, which used every word of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and the somewhat more effortful The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928), which quoted the first part of William Faulkner’s novel verbatim, ERS’s The Sun Also Rises leaves out lines and episodes, even as it runs some three and a half hours.
This is in many ways quite a traditional adaptation. While Gatz reset the text in a corporate office and The Sound and the Fury featured multiple actors playing the same role, the new piece takes place amid a set that more or less resembles the bars and boites and clubs the book describes. And the main characters—American journalist Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson), Jewish Princeton grad Robert Cohn (Matt Tierney), and appetitive Englishwoman Lady Brett Ashley (Lucy Taylor)—seem more fully inhabited than in a typical ERS show. For this company, there’s always a tension between how much to gesture toward a character and how much to embody him or her, between narrated action and felt experience. Here, the actors seem more fully invested than usual, although when Iveson recites Barnes’s line, “All of a sudden I started to cry,” he remains incontrovertibly dry-eyed.
Such Brechtian sorties aside, it at first seems as if the company means to take Hemingway quite seriously. A plausibly realistic set; more or less sincere performances; actors, such as Taylor as Lady Ashley, who seem altogether suited for their roles—only the wonderfully mischievous sound design marks this as an ERS show. But soon enough a madly anachronistic and inventive dance party ensues, the bar transforms into a bullfighting arena, a giant trout flies over the top of the stage, and it becomes clear that director John Collins and his corps mean to have quite a lot of fun with the American classic. This directorial enjoyment, contrasted with the unhappiness of all the major characters, renders the piece unexpectedly moving.
Sure, the show could productively lose half and hour or so, cut from both the Paris and Pamplona episodes, and Collins doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with the novel’s difficult streak of anti-Semitism. But somehow the characters’ insobriety seems to affect the whole theater, setting the spectators giggling and applauding with tipsy abandon. At the close of the performance, Lady Ashley ineffectually implored, “Don’t get drunk, Jake! Jake, don’t get drunk.” But Barnes was already entirely intoxicated. And, as they leaped to their feet to reward the company with a standing ovation, so was the audience.
It seems as though more than a few drinks may have contributing to the devising of Cankerblossom, a Live Arts show by the Philadelphia company Pig Iron, centered on a cardboard baby and a foul-smelling flower. However, as befits a children’s play, no tippling occurs in the course of the play. But you can easily see how the premise might have made a lot more sense after several rounds. Lounging on the sofa at home, an urban couple are surprised by the arrival of a cardboard baby, which coos and cries and drinks from a cardboard bottle. When the baby disappears, along with the falcon from a portrait that graces their living room, the couple go in search of their 2-D kid, journeying from the round world to the flat one, via a strange and largely inexplicable realm called the “In-betweens.”
That might have made for quite a fun show, but once transmitted to this flattened world, Cankerblossom’s internal logic breaks down. A character goes scuba diving for no particular reason. Looming threats vanish without explanation. A climactic encounter with the play’s villain barely registers and goes unresolved. Still the cardboard masks and costumes, designed by actor Beth Nixon, are entirely swell and the playful songs, by Rosie Langabeer, are winning. But in addition to rendering the script more purposeful and logical, Pig Iron may want to think again about the play’s intended audience. At the closing-night performance there were precisely two children in the audience. And one of them left early.