Friday 27 January 2017

As I Lay Dying a gripping throwback parable
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together. 
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

Whither the script ? :  William Faulkner is never an easy read. His 1930 novel As I Lay Dying spans some 59 chapters. Over a dozen different characters deliver monologues to tell this tale. The tale of how mom Addie Bundren's dying wish is to be hauled back to Jefferson, Mississippi for burial. And how her husband Anse, four sons and a daughter manage, somehow, to pull off the caper of carting her unembalmed corpse cross-country for nine days come hell and high water and the stench of rotting flesh in summer's heat.

Faulkner's technique in the book was a stream of consciousness script structure. Through it he reveals the characters' often-selfish motives as they nevertheless join together in common cause to honour Mom's last wishes. ACT's program describes Dying as "The Evocative and Absurd Southern Gothic Masterpiece".

From the footlights : A 40-mile-trek on a mule-drawn buckboard with a ripe cadaver surely lends itself to physical and emotional clutter of all sorts. And the script adaptation by former clown mavens Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County in USA Depression times hi-lites those theatrical characteristics. 

Put another way, the show does not attempt to represent or depict Faulkner's more broad artistic intent that looks piercingly and darkly through the Southern glass of his times. Rather it is pathos, mischief, and ironic intent that inform Theatre Smith-Gilmour's theatricality here. For two hours the hypocrisies that lurk in the hearts of the notionally Christian characters Faulkner conjured up cavort before our eyes in a stunning, unique and poetic danse.

The title is taken from Homer's Odyssey, when Agamemnon tells Odysseus : "As I lay dying, the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades." I.e. we are promised an epic funeral cortege, and Smith-Gilmour certainly deliver.  In Chapter 52 of the novel son Darl proclaims : "Life was created in the valleys. It blew up on to the hills on the old terrors, the old lusts, the old despairs. That's why you must walk up the hills so you can ride down." A more succinct descriptor of Faulkner's purpose, such as it was, could not be imagined. Dramatizing that theme for a 2017 post-Christian theatre crowd, however, was a challenge writ large indeed.

WYSIWYG :  As in Faulkner's novel, the scenes range in duration from almost split-second snapshots to countless minutes of mime and burlesque and exaggerated footwork. But not just a farrago of family feuds is on feature here. Altogether some 19 characters are brought into the piece by the seven actors who perform. Fake noses on the ancillary characters and a host of voiceover sound effects add to the general cacophony. 

Interior monologues, side stories and seeming random departures of all sorts require of the crowd probably one of two approaches : try to absorb and digest each theatric morsel, or just let the clutter fall willy-nilly at your feet and let it make of itself what it will by show's end. I tried both. Both worked. No trickster or contriver could more capably call up the spirits on display here. Simply put, I was utterly smitten by the singularity and eccentricity of this show. That William Faulkner was its original author was, quite frankly, almost incidental. What Theatre Smith-Gilmour did with his characters was the fun, the thrill, the sheer creativity afoot on the night.

Production values of note : A compressed scrunched-up performance space with scrims narrowing the boards. The stage floor blank & black. Characters braced only by suspenders and hyperbole and bare feet. Precious few props -- a kid's kindergarten chair; a picnic basket; a metal bucket -- nothing else but creative choreography and gesticulation and charade drawn up large to join the voiceovers and amplified profundo sound effects.

Character pin-spots : Imagine from one family : an aloof, lazy, sniveling excuse for a father who demands others act with Christian generosity of spirit while he pays only lip service. An adulterous mom who cuckolded dad with the local minister. Four sons : the eldest an accident-prone but accomplished carpenter, another bi-polar, the bastard boy who is all attitude and horse-crazy, the youngest a simpleton. A sister who at 17 is pregnant by a local farm boy. Classic 1930's stereotypical Mississippi gothic.

Not to forget what Tolstoy so famously noted in his opening to Anna Karenina : "All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." But still, this clutch of misfits somehow manage to pull together to get mom home to Jefferson and final resting place.

As bastard son Jewel, Benjamin Muir was nonpareil in his constancy of character and vivid persona, he his mother's favourite, he whose name she shouted with her last breath. His opening taming-the-horse mimicry was stupendous and Muir maintained that acting excellence across the night. Daniel Roberts as Vardaman was captivating as the naif and mentally challenged but ever-loyal youngest sibling. But consistently strong performances by each and every actor in this piece, no question, terrific faithfulness to character interpretation by all throughout the show.

Who gonna like : We live not only post-religion and anti-truth in a social media world that champions "my opinion" as paramount. And given the name William Faulkner is largely unknown to those born later than the Boomers, who will warm or thrill to a script built on a Southern gothic footing from 1930? Acting fans, that's who. Those who like storytelling spun up large. Folks for whom the magic of choreography and mime and vaudeville cartoon antics -- much of it in wonderful slo-mo cadences -- these are for whom Dying will incite a re-birth of stage enthusiasm in Vancouver. 

Artistic and Executive Director of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival Norman Armour puts it best :

"Old stories, new guises...the PuSh Festival is deeply invested in the thespian tradition of adapting and re-telling enduring tales from literature, myth, and folklore. This interest is equalled by our mission to tell venerable tales of human folly, ambition, grief, and love in ways that are notably contemporary, and of these times... On the stage, these re-told tales often highlight the theatre's unique sense of agency and power; a power that speaks of the human condition."

Dying is an electrifying and effervescent and resuscitating dramatic adventure. This show is simply not to be missed.

Particulars :  Script adapted from the novel by William Faulkner by Theatre Smith-Gilmour. Produced by Arts Club Theatre in collaboration with Theatre Smith-Gilmour in a presentation for the International PuSh Festival.  At the Goldcorp Stage, BMO Theatre, 1st Avenue at Columbia. On until February 12, 2017. Run-time 140 minutes, including 20 minute intermission. Tickets & schedule information via or by phoning ACBO @ 604.687.1644.  

Production team :  Directors Dean Gilmour & Michele Smith.  Set & Costume Designer Teresa Przybylski.  Lighting Designer Andre de Toit.  Stage Manager Heather Thompson.  Assistant Stage Manager Kelly Barker.

Performers :  Julian De Zotti (Darl Bundren; Samson).  Dean Gilmour (Anse Bundren; Rev. Whitfield; Moseley; Quick).  Nina Gilmour (Dewey Dell Bundren; Littlejohn; Lulu).  Eli Ham (Cash Bundren; Tull; Gillespie; MacGowan).   Benjamin Muir (Jewel Bundren; Mr. Peabody).  Daniel Roberts (Vardaman Bundren; Armstid; Vernon).  Michelle Smith (Addie Bundren).


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