28 April 2008

In Which a Dramaturg Re-Discovers the Power of Live Theatre After Too Many Readings and Printed Scripts (Not Really, But Sorta)

I thought this weekend was going to be theatrically hard, but the Friday/Sunday almost-doubleheader of Satyagraha at the Met and The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928) at New York Theatre Workshop turned out to be not the trying marathon of slow weirdness I'd expected, but rather a lucky confluence of theatre that plays not only with words and music and space and movement, but time.

Of course it takes a Philip Glass opera to get me thinking about how theatre (and there is no reason for Satyagraha to not be called theatre) can manipulate your (the audience's) sense of time. Both James and someone in the Satyagraha program notes (possibly director Julian Crouch) describe Glass' music as slowing down their heart rate. The 3 1/2 hours don't seem long, but it's not that time is flying, like with August: Osage County or a marathon of "Mythbusters." The time isn't moving fast; it's just different. Your body (and mind) settle into a different sort of time.

The Sound and the Fury worked similar witchcraft, but in a subtler way. Glass' repetitive, meditative music is obvious for trance-inducing. The Sound and the Fury uses the text (nothing more, nothing less, words-wise) of the first part of Faulkner's novel. I should say here that I've never read this book, or anything by Faulkner, because my dreams of being an English major lasted exactly one semester. And I didn't read the books from that semester, even. Going into the play last night, I knew the basic idea of the book - each part narrated by a different character, and the first narrator is mentally disabled (and, it turns out, mute), so this book is the bane of English majors everywhere - not only do you not know that your narrator is "an idiot" for a goodly while, but the narrative also jumps in time, between his childhood, adulthood, and teenage years, on associations as small as a splash of water. Luckily (for those of us who enjoy having some semblance of an idea of what's going on), theatre gives you tools beyond the text to give some sense of what's going on.

The Sound and the Fury was much clearer than I was expecting. (All I know of Elevator Repair Service's work is what I've heard about Gatz, their six-hour full-text-of-The-Great-Gatsby that's not allowed to be performed in NYC because of rights issues. What I've heard about Gatz is that it's amazing, but Faulkner is a whole 'nother, nonlinear thing.) I was expecting to be pretty lost and, knowing that Faulkner's not the sort of thing I like to read, I was, honestly, also expecting to be kinda bored. And here's where the time-bendy theatrical voodoo comes in. Because there were definitely stretches where I felt something like being bored. But it was different, something related, something in slow time and stuck in the almost hypnotic "Caddy said"s and "T.P. said"s of the novel's text. It didn't feel short or fast, not like August: Osage County or even Satyagraha, but it worked. (The dance breaks didn't hurt, either. I have no idea what the hell they were doing there - are dance breaks required in all "downtown" theatre? - but they were wonderful, and thinking about Mike Iveson and Ben Williams keeps making me smile.)

There was a lot going on in The Sound and the Fury beyond its hypnotic powers. I really think the production made what I'm sure is an impenetrable story in its novel form (time jumping, multiple characters with the same name, a mysteriously impaired narrator) pretty remarkably clear. I'm not sure I was ever confused about when we were in the story, or what was going on. (Like hearing Shakespeare or seeing a subtitled film, it took a few minutes to get the hang of.) There were also some really stunning performances - the two guys mentioned above, when dancing or not; the always-wonderful Annie McNamara; Vin Knight; and Susie Sokol, giving one of the seriously greatest mute performances I've ever seen. (I did start feeling a little feeble with the 45 minutes/90 minutes disproportion of act one and act two, but at least I am not the two old ladies who I guess were so put off or something that they had to get up and leave from the middle of the audience, in clompy shoes, 15 minutes before intermission.) I didn't walk out saying Oh my god I totally loved it, but it's been on my mind all day. I wonder if this production was different - more or less interesting, more or less revelatory - for someone familiar with the novel. I also wonder if Gatz will ever make it to New York. (I should've done like all the cool kids and seen it in Philly last year.)

Read an interview with Elevator Repair Service Artistic Director and The Sound and the Fury director John Collins here. Read an interesting but too-short Times piece on ERS and The Sound and the Fury here.

All Sunday night (7pm) tickets at New York Theatre Workshop are $20. You can buy them in advance, but only in cast at the NYTW box office. $20 student tickets are available (with ID). I'm unclear if these can be bought in advance as well. If you don't feel like schlepping down to East 4th Street (eat at Atlas cafe!), you can buy $40 tickets for performances through May 18 with code SDFBLG7.


anna said...

"knowing that Faulkner's not the sort of thing I like to read... what i'm sure is an impenetrable story"

who put such ideas in your head? it's beautiful! plenty hard, but some of the most beautiful writing i know. i'm not saying you must run out and read it today, but i know you and what you enjoy reading, and i'm confident that you'd love faulkner, and the sound and the fury.

Allison said...

I'm with Anna on this. The idea of Faulkner's name alone could bore me before I read him in Arnold Weinstein's "Fiction of Relationship" class. It's pretty beautiful. Prose you can "swim in," to borrow one of your phrases.

Faulkner is one of the pre-air conditioning Southern writers. (Thank you, After Ashley.) He knows how to fine beauty and meaning.

Jaime said...

Okay, now that two of the people I trust most about books have told me what's what, I'll give Faulkner a shot, and see if we can shake up my nothing-before-1985* rule.

*Unless it's before 1750. And I'm kidding. Sort of.