Monday, September 12, 2011

The Select: Long Drunken Shenanigans in Pamplona

So I rushed to read The Sun Also Rises to prepare for the Elevator Repair Company's production of The Select (an interpretation of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises).  I wasn't sure how experimental or deconstructed the book might be in the show and I thought I should give it a read. 

Turns out, the play is pretty much a narrative recitation of the book with some bits dropped.  So don't feel you are missing anything if you have not read the book.  A short run down of the plot basically involves Jake, a thirty-ish impotent journalist hanging out and drinking in Paris who gets swept up in a bit of a love triangle of sorts with his "tennis friend" Robert.  They both love, in their own way, Lady Brett Ashley.  This somehow leads them to Spain for the bullfights where tempers flare, emotions bubble over and bulls die.

The book is largely narrated by Jake and therefore so is the play.  At the start, the dialogue is performed in such a way that Jake might say "I turned to Robert (action: he turns to Robert) and I said, What rot."  The "I said" trope was a little annoying and seemed to fade away as the play went on.  The book is very dialogue heavy and so it doesn't feel like a lot of "adaptation" was needed. 

For the record, half the audience left at intermission never to return.  I think this will be a divisive production.  Either you will love it or hate it.  I actually enjoyed large parts of Act I but it turns out I would have been happy to have missed Act II all together. 

One of the difficulties with this play and this work is that all the characters are pretty despicable.  I felt that way after reading the book and the play conveyed the same feeling.  There were points where I really wished the performances could have clarified the emotional state of the characters for me and the actors either chose not to (perhaps following the ambiguity of the book) or didn't convey the emotional note they were going for.  

I thought Mike Iveson, the actor playing Jake, was poorly miscast.  He had a comical tone but that didn't feel right for the part at all.  The actor playing Robert Cohn (oddly reminded me of Josh Hamilton as Grover in Kicking and Screaming) seemed to capture the desperate, hanger-on nature of that character.  Lucy Taylor, as Lady Brett Ashley, was haughty, flip and contradictory but she wasn't ravishing enough to make it clear why these men were falling in love with her. With Jake and Brett, you need actors who are so magnetic and charismatic that their impulsive actions make sense.  Sadly none of the leads were that compelling. 

A couple performances stood out for me.  Kate Scelsa, as Frances, was allowed to go for broke as the woman who is desperate to be married but cannot get her man to commit.  It was a highly comic performance and it suited the role.  Frank Boyd, as Harvey Stone, had a short but memorable scene.  Ben Williams, as Bill Gorton, was incredibly charismatic and I often wished he had more to do. 

It oddly felt like someone had handed The Sun Also Rises to a comedy troupe to see if they could have some fun with it.  If only that is what they were committed too.  It ended up being half a wild-comedy act and half a serious endeavor.  Act II was so laughable and bad...I can't even begin to describe the bullfighter nonsense going on there. 

There is certainly no mistaking this show and its approach as being naturalistic.  The theatricality of the comedic bits was largely driven by the sound design.  The actors are credited with the sound design.  Behind the bar at the back of the stage was a sound unit where actors would make sound effects.  These were often done for comic effect or to give the scene a stronger sense of place (a bullring, a loud bar, a babbling river).  I have mixed feelings about the sound design.  Sometimes I was fine with the sound choice being made but the more comical it got the more distracting it felt from the material.  There were many points where the emotional tone was quite serious and the comic sound design just took away from the moment.  There was also unevenness with the sound.  It would be loud and then drop out completely...which was again jarring.  The sound design didn't feel cohesive.  Normally who would notice these things, but the sound design plays a large role in this production.   

Since so much of the story takes place in cafes and bars in Paris and Spain that is what the set is.  Although some scenes are in bedrooms, the characters just lay down on the tables.  I had a few issues with the set.  First off the "tables" used were like cafeteria folding tables which looked so obviously modern and cheap. yet the background set was nicely crafted.  I know they needed to move the tables around and use them for varying purposes but it would have been nice if they had made the tables seem remotely period.  When the scenes to change to bedrooms scenes the table thing just felt awkward.  The actors sort of splayed out on a didn't work for me.

I would see another production by these folks but I am disappointed that this one didn't really work for me.

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