Elevator Repair Service has done it again. Director John Collins and his posse of super-talented performers and designers have recently tackled a trio of classic 20th century American novels and created some of the best theater of this young century. The 20-year-old theater company, which reached a peak of recognition last season with the New York premiere of “Gatz,” its two-part seven-hour staging of “The Great Gatsby,” has now done with Ernest Hemingway what it did with F. Scott Fitzgerald. “The Select (The Sun Also Rises)” has been touring the U.S. and Europe for the last year and winds up its run at New York Theater Workshop, where its adaptation of William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928)” played in 2009. Anyone who loves adventurous theater won’t want to miss the show, which closes October 9.
“The Select” does not reproduce every single word of Hemingway’s famous first novel, and its running time is only three hours and 45 minutes, but in other key ways it resembles “Gatz.” As the hero Jake Barnes, Mike Iveson dominates the production, alternating between directly addressing the audience to narrate the rambling story of thirtysomething American expats on the loose in post-World War I Europe and stepping into the action himself. The tale unfolds on a single set, an extraordinarily detailed Parisian bar (designed by David Zinn, who also did the costumes) whose tables, chairs, glasses, and bottles get repurposed to represent a dozen different locations, taxicabs, bedrooms, a fishing hole, a monastery, even a Spanish bullfighting arena. And the other actors create everything else that goes into telling Hemingway’s story, not just playing all the characters but also supplying sound effects (pre-recorded and not). And every so often they break into wild and crazy dancing. Because they can.
There are three huge pleasures to be had in viewing “The Select (The Sun Also Rises).” The novel is one that most of us probably read in high school, when the characters seemed impossibly mature and sophisticated, paragons of sexual sophistication, feminine allure and macho manliness: Jake the journalist, wounded in the war and now impotent, and Lady Brett Ashley (Lucy Taylor), the multiply married emancipated Englishwoman who loves him dearly and yet tortures him by flaunting her affairs with Jewish publisher Robert Cohn (Matt Tierney), hard-drinking Scotsman Mike Campbell (Pete Simpson), and teenaged toreador Pedro Romero (Susie Sokol). Seeing them onstage now, played by age-appropriate actors, they look so young and sweet and innocent, even when they spend 90% of their waking hours guzzling booze. And although the central plot revolves around a melancholy story of doomed love, the production bustles with high energy, laughter, and music.
Collins earned his stripes in the avant-garde theater trenches working sound for Richard Foreman and the Wooster Group and from them picked up a taste for almost continuous underscoring throughout his shows. Sound has become to Elevator Repair Service what acrobatics is for Cirque du Soleil – an element of the company’s shows into which they pour a huge amount of creativity and show-off mastery. It’s so intimately bound up with a kind of slapstick acting style and multimedia narrative that the two members of the company who design the sound – Matt Tierney and Ben Williams -- double as actors and work their magic from two decks onstage disguised variously as a hotel reception, a maitre d’s podium, and a bar (though near the end of the show the bar front whips away revealing the sound-booth machinery). They have a lot of fun with the sounds of drinking -- liquor pouring, corks popping, glass smashing – which contributes to the show’s unnerving clash of cartoon antics and romantic self-destruction. And there are times when the music and sound effects drop out entirely, usually for emotional scenes between Jake and Brett, and the sudden silence has the effect of creating the intimacy of a cinematic close-up. The show accumulates a dense, epic quality through a highly unconventional collage of theatrical means (I haven’t mentioned Mark Barton’s lighting, another key player) without ever lapsing into obscurity or pretentiousness.
And then there are the actors, who are rock stars, each and every one. The ones who play multiple roles get to be outrageously showy: the astonishing Kaneza Schaal, a 6’4” African-American powerhouse who plays everything from a French prostitute to a Spanish bullfighter; the fierce and fearless Kate Scelsa, who as a coarse rich American makes a riveting presence whether she’s working her way through a row of wineglasses or loudly delivering a four-page drunken tirade; Vin Knight, whose ball-bearing eyes speak in many amusing accents; Ben Williams, who slips from super-macho to queeny like he’s changing shirts and exhibits especially sexy dancing skills; Pete Simpson and Frank Boyd, who play several variations of drunken obnoxious and drunken clueless, respectively. Susie Sokol, a founding member of ERS and a beloved player, barely appears in the first half, the better to dazzle as Pedro the 19-year-old bullfighter. Meanwhile, the central performances are all marvels of understatement. It’s because she doesn’t work too hard for our attention that Lucy Taylor (relatively new to the company) manages to convey the enigma that is Lady Brett, equal parts charm, beauty, narcissism, cruelty, and vulnerability. Matt Tierney similarly spends a huge amount of time onstage doing nothing and saying nothing as Robert Cohn but emanates the spectacular persistence of the love-smitten stalker. And Mike Iveson’s Jake Barnes makes no reference to any clichés associated with Hemingway’s men, instead holding to a mild, almost bland demeanor that makes perfect sense for the role of newspaper reporter and observer to the crazy dance of love. As a new look at Hemingway, “The Select (The Sun Also Rises)” is a revelation.
CultureVulture.net, September 22, 2011