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Dan Watson, Julian De Zotti, Dean Gilmour and Ben Muir in Take Me Back to Jefferson.

Katherine Fleitas

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Take Me Back to Jefferson
Written by
Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour
Directed by
Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour
Actors
Julian De Zotti, Dean Gilmour, Nina Gilmour, Ben Muir, Daniel Roberts, Michele Smith and Dan Watson
Venue
Factory Theatre
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Sunday, November 23, 2014

How do you bring to the stage a dense modernist novel with 15 first-person narrators, most of whom speak in interior monologues or wade through muddy streams of consciousness?

One answer is to turn it into a physical-theatre tour de force.

That's what Theatre Smith-Gilmour set out to do two seasons ago with their rambunctious adaptation of William Faulkner's 1930 classic As I Lay Dying. When it premiered at Theatre Passe Muraille in the winter of 2013, the show was full of striking moments but also ragged and sprawling. For its remount, retitled Take Me Back to Jefferson and now playing at Factory Theatre, the company has sanded away the rough spots, allowing us to fully appreciate it as a virtuoso display of their signature physicality.

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Of course, Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour are old hands at adapting literary work to their bouffon-inspired clowning. But in the past they've dealt with short stories by Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield and Lu Xun, writers whose more traditional styles are better suited to dramatic treatment. Faulkner's fractured novel, on the other hand, defies dramatization. Even the movies have left it alone – it was only recently filmed for the first time, and then as a poorly received pet project of actor-director James Franco.

Gilmour and Smith, who've adapted, directed and co-star in this version, play to their strengths. They peel away much of the rich prose to expose the novel's skeleton, and then re-clothe it in the theatrical equivalent of literary pyrotechnics. We still hear a medley of distinct voices from seven actors portraying 19 characters, but those actors also spend at least as much time vigorously carving Faulkner's dirt-poor rural Mississippi world out of thin air.

Or to be more accurate, hazy air. The mood is set the moment you step into Factory's Mainspace theatre to see a bare stage clouded with what could be sultry summer heat or the dust of back-country roads. We're in Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County, on the Bundren family's cotton farm, where matriarch Addie Bundren (Smith) lies dying, while her carpenter son Cash (Dan Watson) noisily builds her coffin below her bedroom window. Addie's husband Anse (Gilmour) has promised to honour her deathbed wish and bury her with her kinsfolk in the town of Jefferson. So when Addie kicks the bucket, the family dutifully piles onto their mule-drawn wagon and sets out with her coffin on a nine-day journey blighted with endless bad luck.

Where Gilmour and Smith's adaptation only skims the novel's psychological depths, their bouffon-meets-Southern Gothic approach ably captures its comic and grotesque sides. Gilmour's tight-fisted, self-pitying Anse is a wily old cuss who sees the trip to Jefferson as a chance to buy some long-needed false teeth. The Bundren girl, teenage Dewy Dell (played with a kind of feline melancholy by Nina Gilmour, Smith and Gilmour's real daughter), also has an ulterior motive – she's hoping to secretly get an abortion while in town.

The Bundren boys, meanwhile, deal with grief in their own strange ways. The youngest, the preteen Vardaman (a charmingly cherubic Daniel Roberts), is convinced his mother's soul has transmigrated into a fish. Jewel (Ben Muir), Addie's favourite, channels his unbridled anger into his obsession with an ornery horse – in fact, as exuberantly played by Muir, Jewel is often half-man, half-horse. The eloquent Darl (a scarily blank-faced Julian De Zotti) starts to go mad. Watson's stoic Cash, the oldest son, is the most level-headed one – but then he's sidelined with a broken leg that ends up festering in a cast foolishly made of concrete.

The family's two biggest trials on the journey, fording a raging river and fighting a barn fire, are staged as bravura set pieces. As directors, Smith and Gilmour pull out the stops, combining frenetic action, fluid slow motion, vivid tableaux, subtle music and some powerful sound effects. The rest of the play is rapidly staged in short, sharp scenes under the shafts of André du Toit's nimble lighting. But despite the speed, the performance could still use some trimming – with a running time of more than two hours, it feels too long.

It's also a show to test your tolerance for clowning conventions. When the actors play minor characters, such as the "tub of guts" Dr. Peabody (Muir) and the obliging neighbour Armstid (Roberts), they wear false noses that could be straight out of a joke shop. But you can say this: Watching the Smith-Gilmour take on Faulkner is a lot more fun than reading SparkNotes.

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