A CurtainUp Review
The Sound and the Fury
By Charles Wright
In his review of that production Les Gutman noted that, when he saw it, some people couldn't make it even to the intermission . . .without noisily departing. (To read that review go here). This time around, there is no intermission; and the actors' performances are so well-timed and compelling that the show moves forward with admirable velocity, devoid of the academic mustiness that often taints staged readings. At the performance under review there were no premature departures.
"April 7, 1928," the notoriously difficult opening section of Faulkner's masterpiece, is a stream-of-consciousness account of the mental activity of feeble-minded Benjamin (Benjy) Compson on the occasion of his 33rd birthday. Moving back and forth between Benjy's contemporaneous observation of events and his associations from the past, the narrative reflects what Faulkner described as the "unbroken-surfaced confusion" of a character who, though physically adult, is mentally a child.
The ERS production uses a few projections, frequent doubling by actors, rapid-fire costume changes, and a certain amount of amusing schtick to convey the chronology of the muddled recollections — the "sound and fury"— passing through the mind of the "idiot" narrator. What's remarkable is the extent to which the actors elucidate the unpredictable chronology of Benjy's memories, makng the rapid flow of words coherent to an audience of non-Faulkneria.
At the center of ERS's staging of The Sound and the Fury is the touching, nuanced performance of Susie Sokol as Benjy, who doesn’t speak and has been gelded by order of his scapegrace brother. A member of the troupe for 23 years, Sokol also played Benjy in the 2008 engagement. She captures the innocence, confusion, and frustration of this mentally-challenged character. Director John Collins moves the other actors around Sokol in a manner that constantly reminds the viewer that everything on stage is filtered through Benjy's mind. Despite the introduction of three new performers for this run, The Sound and the Fury is a model of polished ensemble artistry.
Faulkner's novel features greed, snobbery, racial tension, suicide, sibling rivalry, sexual promiscuity, incestuous yearnings, alcoholism, castration, and other themes and topics bold for genteel readers of early 20th century fiction. Benjy's family, the Compsons, are Mississippi gentry, once wealthy and socially prominent, now struggling with reduced finances and moral quandary. In 1929, the characters of The Sound and the Fury, their neuroses, foibles, and licentiousness offered a striking contrast to the fictional worlds of Faulkner's bestselling contemporaries such as Booth Tarkington and Edna Ferber, and the contrast made the novel a succès de scandale.
Latter day readers and theater audiences, accustomed to far greater frankness, are unlikely to recoil from what was regarded as sordid eight decades ago. If Faulkner's characters are less exotic to current audiences than they were to the novel's early readers, the author's stream-of-consciousness prose is as challenging as ever.
What's remarkable is that the ERS cast, reading or reciting every line of "April 7, 1928," without elaborate framing devices or commentary, to make the randomness of Benjy's mental activities not only comprehensible — but entertaining and emotionally satisfying. In the hands of ERS, this complex drama of a slow-witted man and his relationship with relatives and family retainers, reflects the spirit of Faulkner's famous remarks, in his 1950 Nobel Prize banquet speech, about the compassion, sacrifice and endurance of humankind.
Following are links to Curtainup's reviews of ERS's unique presentations of novels by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald:
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