Literature Unbound: Liberating Hemingway and Fitzgerald From the Brooklyn Library

09/24/2012 9:44 AM |


Theater troupe Elevator Repair Service has become known for its epic, text-respectful adaptations of American modernist classics: The Sound and the Fury, The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby. This weekend, the company took those three books and read them aloud as they scattered out through shelves of fiction at Brooklyn’s Central Library. Well, sort of. They read excerpts from all three at once, out of order. The actors each carried one of the books; its insides had been hollowed out to make room for a smart phone, on which scrawled clauses, lines of dialogue and full-sentence narrations culled from the three books. An actor might discuss his younger and more vulnerable years before another would mention Robert Cohn’s boxing career at Princeton. “If you’re tight, then go to bed,” one might say. “Dilsey said,” another might add.

Part of the BEAT Festival and a Brooklyn Book Festival bookend, Shuffle was one of the best shows I’ve seen this year, giving voice, just a taste, to the silent cacophony swelling within the stacks, the overlap of different narrators and clashing dialogues usually contained by closed covers. It was literature unbound, brought from the page not to the stage but to the living space all around you. The show runs 30 minutes, and the actors repeated it four times, switching roles: some would rapidly read a succession of phrases (Mike Iveson brilliantly tore through the aisles as he did this, poking at spines as though reading the titles of books), others all the phrases in the three books that begin with “I am” or “he is.” Sure, it felt like acting exercises and didn’t always work. But other times it yielded unexpectedly beautiful and comic results—or at least flattery. Wandering the room with a glass of wine in my hand, I found the terrific Ben Williams in a corner, performing for just one woman. “I’m damned fond of him,” he said, looking me in the eyes. It took me a moment to remember that’s Gatsby. I think?

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