Elevator Repair Service’s production of The Select (The Sun Also Rises) brings Ernest Hemingway’s minimalist 1926 debut novel vividly to life at The Shakespeare Theater Company’s Lansburgh Theater this month. Hemingway was known for his stark, unadorned prose. He was the father of the “Iceberg Theory” – focusing on surface elements without explicitly discussing underlying themes, which Hemingway believed, should shine through implicitly. By putting the writer’s bare prose into the performers’ hands, Elevator Repair Service brings the context, offering the audience a “whole iceberg” view of the between-the-wars ennui and freneticism of Paris café society.
The Sun Also Rises is the tale of the Lost Generation, post-war anxiety fueling a relentless pursuit of life, but instead miring them in soulless empty tension and feverish café culture. The characters are trapped in a bleak purposelessness, with no sense of responsibility. Time is suspended, an enemy that must be filled. Dance and Movement Coach Katherine Profeta perfectly portrays the “running-to-stay-in-place” social frenzy with her furious dance scenes, where characters are rag dolls driven by their own desperation.
John Collins is a triple threat as director, actor (playing rigid, humorless Robert Cohn with understated humor), and sound technician. The soundtrack is itself a character (poured drinks, starting cars, casting flies), beautifully conceived by Sound Designers Matt Tierney and Ben Williams. The device mimics Hemingway’s style – an action is shown (sweeping a glass from the table), but the impact of the action is separate, implied (the shattering sound). It also offers welcome comic relief, occasionally piercing the fourth wall in droll recognition of its own artificiality. Scenery and costumes by David Zinn, and lighting by Mark Barton, effectively transform a basic café interior from Café Select, to a highland stream, to a Spanish bullring. The simplicity is a credit to Hemingway’s style.
Stephanie Hayes and Mike Iveson are strong as tidal wave Brett Ashley and laconic Jake Barnes. Iveson deserves an award for longevity alone, as he dictates the narrative in a typewriter-staccato. If the thwarted pair lack some chemistry, their inability to truly connect is more attributable to the flaws of the characters than to the actors. They are supported by an excellent 13-member ensemble playing the remaining roles. A particular standout was Robert Johanson as Bill Gorton, delivering the show’s best comic relief.
While the length of The Select palpably recreates the ennui of café society, some judicious editing would have been kinder to today’s theatergoer. At three hours, the play is too long. The drawn-out pseudo erotica of the bullfights, in particular, would have made Hemingway proud, but left me shifting in my seat and checking my watch. Moving the focus away from the simmering character stew served no purpose but to muddy the key ingredients. Though the visible “package” actress Susie Sokol displayed in her tight pantalones as Pedro Romero was a nice touch, particularly juxtaposed against Barnes’ plight.
Elevator Repair Service again turns prose into performance with great effect. Better than Cliff’s Notes. Don’t miss the chance to brush up on some great American literature and enjoy a night out at the theater simultaneously.
The Select is playing at The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre (450 7th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004) through April 2, 2017. Running time: three hours with one fifteen minute intermission. For information or tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or click here.
Photos credit Scott Suchman