Three hours and ten minutes breeze by in The Select, Elevator Repair Service’s delightfully inventive riff on Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel The Sun Also Rises. I thoroughly enjoyed it, am extremely pleased to have seen it, and would recommend it highly, even if the experience was occasionally frustrating.
ERS’s clever storytelling at times feels somewhat out-of-sync with the characters, moods, and style of the original. That said, this hybrid Hemingway is replete with its own satisfactions, and ends up being a tribute that, while not slavishly authentic to the novel, does capture much of its essence.
Like the company’s previous literary adaptations, all the words we hear are from the source material. Some of the staging, though, tweaks the original in ways informed by contemporary attitudes and by downtown aesthetics.
ERS is a twenty-five year old NYC-based company that had a break-out hit with its seven-hour stage version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. (That was called Gatz.) They followed up with The Sound and the Fury, in which one long chapter from William Faulkner’s masterpiece was staged.
I suppose that it was only logical for the company next to tackle Hemingway and the novel that established him as a singular voice in early 20th Century North American fiction; the novel that became the iconic chronicle of what Hemingway’s pal Gertrude Stein labeled “the lost generation,” those disillusioned by and aimless after the First World War.
Narrator Jake Barnes is one of that lost generation. We meet him in a Paris bar where he introduces us to a colorful band of ex-pat Americans and Brits, several of whom, like Jake, are enamored of the alluring, soon-to-be divorcée (for the second time) Brett, Lady Ashley. Tiring of the Paris nightlife (the double-entendre title The Select, by the way, refers to a favorite Paris bar), Jake and co. embark on a trip to Spain.
And it is in Spain (where they arrive about halfway through the show) that The Select really blossoms, and where it most fully accesses the spirit of The Sun Also Rises.
That spirit is captured beautifully during the Paris section in a couple of quiet scenes: one in which Jake is alone at night; another when Brett reveals to Jake that his friend/rival Robert Cohn had accompanied her for a recent romantic getaway.
Throughout, the playfulness of the stagecraft is thoroughly entertaining, and involves a lot of techniques I adore. These include cross-gender casting and the strategic use of anachronism. A non-literal soundscape involves cues that create (and exaggerate) the pouring of alcohol, the popping of corks, and the breaking of glass. (The sound design is by Matt Tierney and Ben Williams, both of whom also acted in the show in NYC, but aren’t in the cast here.) Music is generously utilized, including during a sensational early dance sequence that is a delight. (Katherine Profeta is the dance and movement coach.)
John Collins (who founded the company and directs all of its productions) has done terrific work with his actors. That said, he doesn’t always guide them toward the more troubled sides of their characters.
Mike Iveson plays Jake (and created the role in the original production) and his accomplishment is wildly impressive. He must have a good half (if not more) of the text, which he delivers effortlessly — watching him do this part is like watching Fred Astaire dance. But his presence is bright and good-humored. Only occasionally do we feel Jake’s restlessness and the ennui one associates with the character. (It’s been decades since I read the novel and saw the 1957 film version, so memory may be unreliable, but I don’t remember Tyrone Power ever smiling.)
There’s an early scene during which Cohn and his fiancée Frances have a spat. She lays into him in front of Jake. This is performed, with relish, by the astounding Kate Scelsa, and is a comic highlight of the night. What’s missing, though, from the impressive set-piece is the underlying sadness of a disappointed and lonely woman.
The early playfulness of the approach ended up, I felt during intermission, bordering on the flip. I had the slightly cheeky feeling that what we were seeing was less Hemingway’s Paris than the one that Woody Allen gave us in his Midnight in Paris: terrific fun, but not true to Hemingway; certainly not very melancholic.
This changes palpably when we get to Pamplona. The inventiveness of the staging is retained (a former bar table dons horns to represent a bull; a fishing sequence features air-borne trout). But here, the flavor of Hemingway’s colorful depictions of place, of sport, of camaraderie, are captured wonderfully.
The dance set-piece in part one is at a bar and features (I was told during intermission) music from the 80s hair-band Van Halen. In part two, there is another dance sequence at the fiesta in Pamplona, and it is equally entertaining, but keeps us more fully in the world of the novel.
Want to go?
The Select (The Sun Also Rises)
closes April 2, 2017
Details and tickets
Brett’s fiancé Mike Campbell is played by Pete Simpson (another actor from the original cast) and, perhaps because he arrives into the story late, Simpson seems to have the best balance: he feels fully in both Hemingway’s world and ERS’s throughout.
Less satisfying is Stephanie Hayes’ Brett. When Brett speaks of the passions that drive her, Hayes seems detached. That said, I was in Row O, and I wonder if, to those closer, more could be observed going on with Hayes than what reached the back of the house, and her final scene was on target and quite poignant.
Director Collins has stepped into the part of Cohn, and that is the character who felt most off to me. Looking like a cross between former Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich and NBC’s Pete Williams, Cohn here is older than the others, and is conceived as a bit of a schlemiel, and that rather misshapes the romantic…I guess it’s a pentagon. (At least.) He’s not the threat to the other men in the way that Hemingway intended Cohn. You don’t believe him as an ex-boxer, and his eventual violent outburst plays as comic, not as alarming. I wish it wasn’t the case that the driving artistic force behind this impressive company and production doesn’t also give my least favorite performance.
My previous experience with ERS was more than 15 years ago, a version of The Bacchae, called Highway to Tomorrow, and I remember having a similar response — hesitation at first, followed ultimately by embracement. Perhaps it’s part of the company’s calculation, that a frisky beginning will eventually pull you into the material.
The approach also surely helps blunt the aspects of Hemingway’s “man’s man” ethos that will be grating to contemporary ears. Otherwise, though, ERS doesn’t soften those edges. Brett self-describes as a “bitch” repeatedly; Cohn’s Jewishness is something Jake harps on, and uses to demonstrate Cohn’s otherness, in his eyes as well as in the eyes of others; a clique of gay men that Brett hangs with is described by Jake with disdain (and are drawn quite broadly by the actors).
In fact, many of the cameo parts are drawn broadly. That said, the cast members who multitask are remarkably protean, and possessed of impressive skills. For instance, in addition to several crisp portrayals, Robert M. Johanson displays masterful juggling skills, and Gavin Price’s isolations during the movement sequences are eye-catching.
The remarkably versatile set by David Zinn (who also designed costumes) must give the actors a workout as they move chairs, long tables, and, eventually, the prominent upstage bar, but Zinn and Collins have choreographed this shifting work so shrewdly that it adds to the fun. The two also make canny use of that bar and of doors, as actors pop up and down, in and out, or are glimpsed behind windows. The removal of the bar toward evening’s end reveals a post-Cohn Collins working the sound equipment. (The role he has assumed was original played by one of the sound designers.) Mark Barton’s lighting design adds to the smooth and quick changes of location and mood.
STC, as has become its habit, is hosting a visit by an exciting, provocative company with a well-earned international reputation, doing something really unusual and distinct. Unlike the brief runs that similar work gets at Kennedy Center, ERS is in residence at the Lansburgh into the month of April.
Give yourself a treat…don’t miss them.
The Select (The Sun Also Rises). Text by Ernest Hemingway. Directed by John Collins. Featuring (rotating) Paul Boocock, John Collins, Daphne Gaines, Stephanie Hayes, Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Robert M. Johanson, Vin Knight, Gavin Price, Kate Scelsa, Kaneza Schaal, Pete Simpson, and Susie Sokol. Scenic & Costume Designer: David Zinn. Lighting Designer: Mark Barton. Sound Designers: Matt Tierney & Ben Williams. Producer: Ariana Smart Truman. Production Stage Manager: Maurina Lioce. Dance & Movement Coach: Katherine Profeta. Created and performed by Elevator Repair Service. Presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.