The Select, performed by the oddly named Elevator Repair Service, is a stage adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises. Elevator Repair Service or ERS is a collaborative founded in 1991 with the aim of devising theatre pieces from non-theatrical material. In its early years, the company worked with found texts to create highly energetic, idiosyncratic shows. Of late, it has drawn its works from classics of American literature of the 1920s: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and now Hemingway.
The first two productions were much admired for their successful translation from stage to page. Each used a framing device. Gatz, set in a contemporary office, begins when an employee cannot start up his computer. While waiting, he pulls out a copy of The Great Gatsby, starts reading it aloud, and slowly morphs into Nick Carraway, the book’s narrator. As other office workers arrive and perform their tasks, they too become characters in the novel, which is read in its entirety – including all the he saids and she saids.
For The Sound and the Fury, ERS drew only upon the first and most difficult of its four chapters. In it, the story is told in a stream of consciousness flow from the unstable point of view of the retarded and mute Benjy. In the production a similar confusion was engendered by multiple actors playing the same characters without regard to race, sex, and age.
The Select has a more straightforward approach, which, in its own way, is less true to the published work. While the previous adaptations followed the authors’ texts verbatim, this one takes liberties through significant deletions. Having just revisited the novel, I was very aware of the modifications.
That the script is not thoroughly faithful to the novel is indicated by the title change. The Select designates the Montparnasse café frequented by Hemingway and his dramatis personae. It may also refer to the fact that the principal characters, with the exception of the Jewish Robert Cohn, view themselves as a select group, which accepts only insiders. And, according to director John Collins, it alludes to the selective culling of the novel, which at times unbalances the final product.
Essentially, Hemingway’s 1926 semi-autobiographical tale follows a group of hard-drinking dissolute expatriates from Paris to Spain. Jake Barnes, the protagonist and narrator – and stand-in for Hemingway – is a foreign correspondent in love with Lady Brett Ashley, who symbolizes the female sexual freedom that followed World War I. Because Jake was left impotent by a war wound, their love cannot be consummated. Tomboyish, yet sexy, Brett is a magnet for the men and the cause of jealousy that eventually leads to the group’s dissolution.
Although the first part of the play takes place in Paris , and the second moves to Spain, particularly
Pamplona, where the restless fun-seekers attend the fiesta of San Firmín, the set remains constant. Despite a few prop and lighting changes, it retains its essence as the Select’s bar – cleverly emphasizing the claustrophobic quality of the characters’ lives. It serves as Jake’s office in Paris, hotel rooms, restaurants, bars, taxis, a bus, the countryside along the Irati River in Spain,scenes in Pamplona , including bull ring and the street for the running of the bulls.
Three dark brown walls topped by beige wainscoting and a shelf containing liquor bottles encircle the playing area. Upstage are two practical doors, one left, one right. Between them is a bar. Down left, there is a multi-purpose article of furniture, which serves as a counter, desk, and auxiliary bar. Photos of prize fighters and celebrities adorn the downstage left wall. Wine and liquor bottles, glasses, and carafes litter two long tables. A few chairs are appropriately placed. Colors – even for costumes – are generally muted.
The first scene begins with Jake narrating from the book, speaking to the audience. Soon the descriptive narration lessens, and becomes dialogue taken from Hemingway’s novel. The tone, however, differs frequently taking a humorous tack, not present in the book. Even more striking is the loss of a sense of culture; place and time period are minimized.
Ernest Hemingway’s Paris is an extra in this production, a vague background that adds little. By contrast, in the first part of the novel Paris is the road map of Jake’s life. Most local references are dropped, along with Hemingway’s pride in his French-speaking ability and acquaintanceship of the city, knowledge he would put to good use in A Moveable Feast, his later book on Paris life in the 1920s. Mike Iveson’s Jake Barnes pronounces the few French names he uses awkwardly.
Pamplona receives similar short shrift. The famous running of the bulls that opens the fiesta is transformed into a dance, with scarcely an allusion to what it is representing. Bullfighting is parodied with Pedro Romero, epitomized by Hemingway as the grandeur of the matador, played by slim and petite Susie Sokol. Sokol mocks Hemingway’s macho ideology that underlies the life and death ritual as she stands before the bull – a table with horns – insouciantly puffing a cigar. Like Jake, Hemingway was a bullfight aficionado, who treated the topic in two studies: Death in the Afternoon and The Dangerous Summer.
Although The Sun Also Rises has long been considered emblematic of the 1920s, the few visual and audio allusions to the era occur at the opening when, for example, characters perform a stylized dance at the bar to 1920s sounding music. Brett’s Act I costume, while hardly a flapper outfit, hints at the period. It is a dark blue knee-length dress which, when she removes the jacket, turns into a sleeveless sheath that might have passed muster at the Select. Her androgynous quality is emphasized by her short stylish bob, flat shoes, as well as the straw fedora she wears upon entering and later discards.
In the Pamplona scenes, the tenuous link with the twenties is broken as exemplified by Brett’s costume – a white suit and oversized red beret, the colors of the fiesta. Her bangs are brushed back, giving her an older and tired look, befitting a woman in her thirties who through her infatuation with the nineteen year old Romero, has become painfully aware of time’s passing. In the last scene, broke and abandoned, she is anachronistically dressed in rolled blue jeans and a dull grayish-brown jersey that covers a sequined top whose edge protrudes. It is as if we are seeing her past and future. The party’s over and perhaps she comprehends that “I just can’t stay tight all the time.”
Lucy Taylor’s performance as Lady Brett Ashley is the bright light of the show. More than anyone, she captures the spirit of Hemingway. She embodies Brett’s charm, charisma, narcissism, and daring. Iveson’s Jake, on the other hand, is too bland for the role. He plays the narrator’s distance, but not the character’s pain. Only in the intimate scenes with Brett, when she confides in him, does he come alive as he allows himself to show tenderness. Matt Tierney, the only other actor to play a single role, does the best he can with the unfortunate, stereotyped Robert Cohn, the butt of the in-crowd’s cruelty and dismissiveness. Several portrayals such as Vin Knight’s Count Mippipopoulos and Kate Scelsa’s Frances are acted in a clownesque style that captures the drunken excess that pervades the play.
Frequently, the sound design is artfully employed for the same purpose. Champagne bottles pop, wine is poured, glasses clink – all highly amplified. During the group drinking bouts, their miked voices reach a din that turns conversation meaningless, making the audience a party to their drunken state. Sound rises and falls with the mood of the characters. When Jake and his friend Bill take a fishing trip in Spain, we hear the lap of the river, the casting of a fishing rod, and a distant choir of monks.
Despite its flaws, The Select is a worthwhile, at times thought provoking, at others ebullient (especially during the dance numbers) piece of theatre performed by an inventive company. ArtsEmerson, which provided a residency for ERS last summer to continue developing The Select, is to be congratulated for its support of new work.
Based on the Novel, The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Elevator Repair Service
Director John Collins
Presented by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Theatre, Boston, MA
Set and Costumes – David Zinn
Lights – Mark Barton
Sound – Matt Tierney and Ben Williams
Dance and Movement Coach – Katherine Profeta
Sound Engineer – Jason Sebastian
Cast (in order of appearance)
Frances, others – Kate Scelsa
Jake Barnes – Mike Iveson
Robert Cohn – Matt Tierney
Bill Gorton, Zizi, waiters, others – Ben Williams
Mike Campbell, waiters, others – Pete Simpson
Georgette, the drummer, Belmonte, waiters, others – Kaneza Schaal
Count Mippipopoulos, Braddocks, Montoya, others – Vin Knight
Brett Ashley – Lucy Taylor
Harvey Stone, Harris, waiters, others – Frank Boyd
Girl at Zelli’s, Pedro Romero – Susie Sokol