The stage is littered with bottles. Rather, the stage is framed in bottles, awash in bottles, clinking with bottles, rolling in them. Elevator Repair Service, the modernist theater collective led by John Collins, has clearly decided that Ernest Hemingway’s main thrust is more of a main pour, so the company’s The Select (The Sun Also Rises) does a gleefully drunken, offhandedly contemporary animation of Hemingway’s hardboiled classic. The Select, the Paris bar to which the characters repair so often, serves as the production’s constant home, and David Zinn’s avant-sad design maximizes the woeful tinsel and ersatz paneling. There’s trash in the corners; our shoes feel sticky in sympathy.
And just as with a close-the-joint-down bender, all the good stuff happens right after you’ve thought about leaving. Hemingway’s novel—compressed here to roughly three and a half hours—wallows in endless ennui before hurtling into climax, and so, by necessity, must the show.
The first half has all the qualities of an unhappy night in a watering hole. Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson) narrates, and he pins us in our seats as an amiable but unavoidable raconteur. He tells us all about his friends: beautiful mankiller Lady Brett Ashley (superb Lucy Taylor), sadsack Robert Cohn (Matt Tierney), and garrulous Count Mippipopolous (Vin Knight), expats of various flags who reel through their assignations with minimal passion. Kate Scelsa plays Robert’s shrill lover with deliberately nerve-shattering screeches, and the barmen (Ben Williams and Pete Simpson) amuse themselves with private games on the action’s fringes. Hemingway’s chilly style dominates, and despite Iveson’s grinning bonhomie and Collins’s patented playtime atmosphere (costumes that look like street clothes, a profound interest in silliness), the underlying text’s misanthropy keeps these French scenes quite unbearably downbeat.
After intermission, however, the work takes wing, heading to Spain to let loose with three successive set pieces of humor and menace. Everybody sets out for a fishing trip and a visit to a vibrant fiesta, so Williams and Simpson ditch their bar-rags to become Bill Gorton and Mike Campbell, two charming bastards full of helpful aphorisms (“Caffeine puts a man on her horse and a woman in his grave”) and casual anti-Semitism. It’s like unleashing a pair of puppies onto the set—they are chewing the scenery, sure, but you can’t take your eyes off them.
The fiesta, set in a wash of hellish yellow light by Mark Barton, shakes the walls—then shakes them again. Williams and Tierney’s sound design, run from boards hidden onstage behind the bars, vaults upward—the first-act design may have been inventive and subtle, but the second act sets a new standard for what sound can do to a theatergoer’s adrenal gland. Everything happens at once: Hemingway’s writing takes fire as he describes his beloved Spain, the performances seem to click almost audibly into place, and by the time tiny toreador Susie Sokol is facing down a bull made out of a table, we’re swept as high on bloodlust and unthinking excitement as are the characters themselves.
Hemingway is doomed to be constantly compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald; The Select seems doomed to be compared to Gatz, the company’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby. But in Gatz, the company adapted a book rich in image, with language as cadenced as the King James Bible and a story built for epic tragedy. In retrospect, Fitzgerald seems as speakable as Homer, while Hemingway’s dispassionate journalese resists the messiness of physical representation. Turning The Sun Also Rises into something for the stage requires a firmer shoulder, more stagecraft, a subtler intelligence—all of which the company applies to the work in this piece’s glorious second half. Gatz may still be my sentimental favorite of the two, but there are select moments in this delayed-action riot that held me motionless with awe.