Theater Review: The Sound and The Fury

William Faulkner’s 1929 novel about the tragic Compson family takes some devotion to work through, which may be why the staged version at the Public Theater opens with a hypnotic dance routine. While the book takes the reader on a complicated ride through the narrator’s fragmented memories, the play’s opening number suggests we won’t have to work as hard to follow along.

The play stays rooted in the novel’s first chapter. It’s set in Mississippi and is told from the point of view of Benjy, the Compson’s mute, mentally challenged son. The set is simple. It opens in the family’s living room and remains the same throughout the play. It’s left to the audience’s imagination when the scenes take place elsewhere, a task the skilled actors make easy. We may see the backdrop of the living room, but in a scene where Benjy (played beautifully by Susie Sokol) is outside scaring the passing schoolgirls, it feels like we’re outside with him. The characters draw us in so deeply we’ll believe what they believe.

The events take place on various days between the years 1898 and 1928, jumping back and forth in time, with subtle clues as to exactly which time period a scene is taking place in. For Benjy, small details trigger his memories. One moment, his beloved sister Caddy is stooping down to rub the cold out of his small hands, and the next we’re propelled decades into the future. It’s his 33rd birthday and Caddy is gone. Viewers have to be vigilant for these time leaps, and it helps to be familiar with Faulkner’s narrative structure, but it’s not impossible to follow.

Different actors play the same characters, and once that becomes clear, it’s an exhilarating mental exercise to figure out which actors represent which time periods. Often, they end up on stage together. At one point, Dilsey (played by Daphne Gaines), the family’s trusted servant, is joined by another character playing Dilsey (Greig Sargeant) and their spoken lines collide in the same way time collides for Benjy. Likewise, Mother is mostly a self-involved hippy floating around on prescription pills wonderfully acted by Lucy Taylor, and suddenly a male character takes over her role. It’s unexpected and gives the audience a lot to think about, but is so much fun to watch at the same time.

In 2010, Elevator Repair Service produced “Gatz,” in which “The Great Gatsby” was fully read and acted out, a live performance that lasted a staggering eight hours. Though much shorter at two hours and 15 minutes, the text of “The Sound and The Fury” is also read verbatim in the play; a paperback copy of the novel is a central character. It takes just a moment to adjust to this—the characters speak their lines, including speech tags. Because Luster (Ben Williams and Greig Sargeant) speaks in quick, curt quips, his speech tags are frequent and especially noticeable. This becomes mesmerizing after a while. Is he really going to finish every single one of his lines with “Luster said”? He is.

Benjy’s inner dialogue also gives the audience a chance to experience his muddled perspective. In a scene where Caddy feeds him soup, another character reads his thought process:

“Steam came off the bowl. Caddy put the spoon into my mouth easy. There was a black spot on the inside of the bowl. It got down below the mark. Then the bowl was empty. It went away. The bowl came back. I couldn’t see the spot.”

We are inside his head, hearing his confusion. Like a baby, when something disappears, he is unable to process where it went. “The Sound and the Fury” was disorientating at times but in a manageable way. It matched the disjointed existence that Benjy felt all his life, and isn’t that what a story strives for? To wear the shoes of any character, especially one with such rambling thoughts as Benjy, is worth the price of admission.

Details:
The Sound and the Fury
Elevator Repair Service
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
212-539-8500
Publictheater.org
Through July 12, 2015

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