Say what you will about Theatre Smith-Gilmour, they usually know how to keep it short.
Since the late-1990s, Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour have made a name for themselves in Toronto by adapting short stories into works of physical theatre. To date, they’ve taken on Anton Chekhov, the Brothers Grimm, Katherine Mansfield and Lu Xun.
Now, with the help of a team of young acolytes, the clown-inspired performers have stepped out of their comfort box and are tackling their first novel: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. The long and the short of it is that their techniques don’t work quite as well in full-length format.
Faulkner’s 1930 mock epic follows the Bundrens of Yoknapatawpha County as they journey 40 miles to Jefferson, Mississippi, to bury matriarch Addie (Smith) according to her wishes.
Addie’s death is not necessarily first and foremost on the poor, white family’s minds, however. Father Anse Bundren (Gilmour) seems primarily interested in getting himself a new set of teeth, while daughter Dewey Dell (Nina Gilmour) is preoccupied with worries that a young farmhand has impregnated her.
Jewel (Benjamin Muir), the second youngest, seems mostly to care about his beloved, bucking horse, while Vardaman (Daniel Roberts), the youngest, doesn’t seem to understand what has happened – and drills holes into his mother’s coffin (and through into her corpse) so that she can breathe inside of it.
Only the eldest sons, Cash (Dan Watson) and Darl (Julian De Zotti) seem to be truly grieving. The former responds by becoming as stoic and sturdy as possible, while the latter lets the bleakly absurd events of the funeral procession get to him to the point where he loses his mind. (De Zotti’s blank-eyed detachment in this part is frightening.)
Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s style is about creating strong images as simply as possible. With little more than a chair and plank of wood, the cast conjures the big set-piece scenes from the book with impressive imagination – notably, the family’s trials by water and fire. As Jewel, Muir incorporates the unbridled animal energy of his wild stallion into his movements in such a way that his performance becomes like a thrilling one-man version of War Horse.
The work of Smith and Gilmour tends to have a pretty consistent tone, putting forth a view of the world where humans are sad clowns. This rubs up against Faulkner’s Southern Gothic style, mostly in a creatively interesting way.
The physicality of the show doesn’t really match up with the text, however. Faulkner’s novel is told in the first person by 15 different characters, often in stream-of-consciousness prose that you sometimes have to read twice to fully get.
Incorporating these multiple modes of speech into a single stage world proves problematic. Essentially, the chapters are chopped into monologues delivered by the actors as they stand imprisoned in shafts of lights.
As a result, As I Lay Dying stops and starts rather than flows. The inconsistencies in staging (no director is credited) don’t help the play find its groove. Sound effects are sometimes produced by the actors themselves (mimicking Faulkner’s use of onomatopoeia) and sometimes pumped through the sound system (horse galloping). Any character who’s not a member of the Bundren family is played from behind ugly, fake noses (Gilmour’s oval-shaped one makes him look way too much like a grown-up Elmo), until suddenly that convention is dropped. Then there are the Southern accents that vary from overdone (Nina Gilmour) to understated (de Zotti).
Perhaps an outside eye might have helped smooth out this bumpy ride with the Bundrens.