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The Sound and the Fury

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Susie Sokol.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Intellectual chaos, barely controlled and even less understood, has seldom been given as accurate and sympathetic an airing as is currently occurring at New York Theatre Workshop. Elevator Repair Service, the company that routinely slings found material into the spider web of the avant garde, has set its sights several strata below the likes of its high-born previous subjects Jay Gatsby and Jack Keruoac. This time, Benjamin Compson is caught in the sights, and he'll need all the help he can get.

So will you, unless you happen to be a William Faulkner scholar with a photographic memory. ERS's new piece, The Sound and the Fury, which has been directed by John Collins, is a percussive tribute to the sort of seminal work you might have once studied in American Lit. But it better illustrates a basic rule of the math class you may have slept through a few periods earlier: Add a negative to a negative and you still get a negative.

This is not, mind you, a condemnation of the quality of the source or of its present interpreters; in a way, the two would seem to be made for each other. Faulkner's 1928 novel is a modern masterpiece depicting the declining days of the Compson family, thrilling and frustrating still today with its scattershot storytelling, unreliable narrators, and constant leapfrogging across three decades of turbulent Southern history. In the past, ERS has seized on literature (The Great Gatsby), television interviews (William F. Buckley and Kerouac), and discarded furniture to decorate collages of speech, dance, and unpredictability that inflate two-dimensional works to their visceral and theatrical limit.

But ERS has fused its madcap sensibility with Faulkner's structured mayhem without much changing either to better meet the needs of a standalone show. The chapter that's been adapted is the first, "April 7, 1928," which is told from the perspective of the youngest Compson child, Benjamin (known as Benjy), who's a deaf-mute, mentally retarded, and about to turn 34. As he watches the slow-motion collapse of his parents, brothers and sister, and his very way of life, it becomes clear that within his own head, traditional rules of time, space, and perspective do not apply - and never have. This means ERS has deconstructed what's already a deconstruction - rarely a good idea.

Though the stage version of The Sound and the Fury features almost every word in Benjy's section, and touches on every key event he's witnessed, following the action is no easy task if you're a newcomer to Yoknapatawpha County. A four-page program insert, which includes among other features a Compson family tree, and projected excerpts from the book provide little solace. Each member of the cast of 12 plays multiple roles, often overlapping, and often switching with just seconds' notice, leaving only hints in the costumes (Colleen Werthmann) and the lighting (Mark Barton) to indicate who is saying what and when. That many recite directly from the novel, carrying copies and frequently intoning text like "Mama said," gives the proceedings an additional parodic feel they don't especially need.

Worse is the lack of the context that has always been one of the original's key identifying features. Benjy's "April 7" observances and fractured recollections provide only a baseline narrative, touching on childhood traumas (his "attack" on a pair of schoolgirls), personal relationships (his affection for his sister Caddy, one of the very few who seems to care for him), and other perceptions swirling about his brain. But they're corroborated, refined, and redefined in subsequent chapters centering on his brothers Quentin and Jason and the family's black servant Dilsey, creating an epic view of the downfall of an American family.

Without this extra information, Benjy's view of the world is not much different from a television changing channels on its own every two seconds. Appropriate as this might be for Benjy, it makes for difficult, whiplash-inducing watching. The occasional performer does stand out in the occasional role, however: Tory Vazquez summons an engaging warmth when she plays Caddy; April Matthis brings a solidly respectable dignity to Dilsey. But it's Susie Sokol who dominates the evening as Benjy, capturing both his essential purity and the feeling of being trapped in a body and house where he can't be convinced he truly belongs. Seldom offstage, and wrapped in her role for the longest stretches of time, she's a crucial anchor in a production that too often wants to go adrift.

Despite that, though, her work is mostly wasted, and ends up signifying - you guessed it - nothing. If it's the most expected result of a tale told by an idiot, it's also the most deflating given how scrupulously Faulkner avoided it himself.

The Sound and the Fury
Through May 18
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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