Ehn control

At this writing, I've seen two performances of the Undermain production of writer-director Erik Ehn's The Sound and the Fury--a Wednesday preview and last Saturday's opening night. I must admit I didn't start to enjoy the show until I'd kicked it around in my head during the interval. This made opening night's performance a qualified marvel.

This is probably not something to brag about. Although a truly good production of such a complex script would naturally only work better the second time you saw it, only a handful of William Faulkner/Undermain Theatre fans are likely to buy tickets to a second performance.

With this in mind, I'd urge the Undermain to make available a family tree broken down by each ensemble actor playing various roles, or some kind of "cast of characters" with a short description that included each one's relationship to the other. Maybe they could Xerox it and stick copies in the programs or just post it somewhere prominently in the lobby.

Far be it from me to lecture the house manager on his business. I plead not only on behalf of befuddled theatrical newcomers but also thickheaded theater critics. The Sound and the Fury is one of a half-dozen Faulkner novels I read in high school or college, so I wasn't unfamiliar with the story...or didn't think I was. As adapted (perhaps more accurately distilled) by longtime Undermain collaborator Erik Ehn, actors onstage abruptly switch characters with just a change of facial expression; four characters share two names (including a girl named Quentin); and one amusing fellow named Dalton Ames didn't clearly reveal his relationship to the play until the second show, when a compelling but strange bit of business about a young girl escorted out of a bakery also became apparent.

Now that I've scared off all three people who've made it this far into the review, let me qualify by insisting that The Sound and the Fury will reward your patient attention. It reflects what my limited experience with Erik Ehn has led me to expect--a spine-tingling sense of theater as ritual. Many vaguely witchy moments involve sand formations on the floor, vases full of water and burning letters, and memories/fantasies as seen through a gigantic, gauzy eye at the back of the stage. They enshrined these Southern lives explored from the inside out with an eerie integrity.

The playwright himself directed this script, which had previously been staged as a reading at Dallas Theater Center's Big D Festival of the Unexpected. The multipart story, which spans several decades in the youth and adulthood of turn-of-the-century Compson siblings Quentin (Jeffrey Schmidt), Caddy (Katherine Owens), Jason (Dennis Millegan), and Benjy (Bruce DuBose), has been gathered together in a tight bouquet of overlapping blooms. The process of absorbing the Undermain's crowded but electric staging is like picking favorite flowers from a chaotic centerpiece. As with Faulkner's novel, Ehn's play is less a narrative than an accumulation of little moments epic in their revelation of motive.

The Sound and the Fury is not only William Faulkner's most famous novel, it's also the most emblematic of all that we've come to regard as "Faulknerian" in American literature. The author's near-Greek tragic account of the Compson family's miserable demise echoes all the cliches of Dixie family life in the first half of this century. Faulkner borrowed Joyce's deliberately psychoanalytic approach to characterization, heavily relying on stream-of-consciousness monologues that either support or contradict the statements and actions of the characters. Meanwhile, his sketch-artist's eye records and unfolds a curiously static but vividly colorful background. Nature is a brute force in Faulkner, a kind of pitiless documentary newsreel that seems to isolate his people in their private hells.

You probably either loathe or adore Faulkner. Once you realize how to read him--how to balance that verbose, initially irrelevant background description with his grammar-flouting internal conversations--then the poetry of his writing emerges. Erik Ehn insists that Faulkner was a novelist and a dramatist (in the case of Requiem for a Nun, this is literally true); you can argue whether or not this is true until you hear the man's gleaming, sharp-edged descriptions spoken aloud.

The Undermain's The Sound and the Fury ultimately belongs to three performers--Jeffrey Schmidt, Dennis Millegan, and Rhonda Boutte. Schmidt and Millegan play men whose adult lives are consumed by obsession for a single family member, and their divergent approaches to the characters are engrossing. Quentin seems always on the verge of evaporating into the image of his beloved Caddy, the sister with whom he's committed incest, and Schmidt's understated performance is the water-ballet stroke of a drowning man. Jason, on the other hand, relishes cornering other people with all the mean desperation of a lifetime of feeling cornered. Millegan sets his iron hand on the promiscuous niece Quentin with such clumsiness, she's bound to wriggle free; his comic bluster is all sooty with vindictiveness.

Rhonda Boutte, meanwhile, has been handed two of the most thankless roles in the Faulkner story, the melodramatic matriarch Mrs. Compson and the Christ-like maid Dilsey. The crispness of her performance made her hops back and forth between these two the smoothest in the cast.

During the last half of the second act, when Ehn and Faulkner decide to close the saga through her bloodshot gaze, Boutte's interpretation of Faulkner's converted text raised goosebumps on my arms. She plays Dilsey less as a noble sufferer than a wily observer, a woman whose lowly position in life affords her the modest pleasure of knowing her employers better than they know themselves. In this sense it bookended nicely with Bruce DuBose's Benjy-framed opener, whose eloquent expression of the mentally retarded brother's sensual world didn't hit me until I'd had time to process the play.

All that keeps me from jumping up and down with excitement about this play is that pesky lag time. My first viewing was a rocky affair--while I figured out one plot thread, valuable information about another one was missed. The program for this show contains an essay by William Faulkner that touches on the relationships among the major characters, but it wasn't enough to facilitate my appreciation of Ehn's raucous, regal version. Short of reading the novel beforehand, I'd pop in at your local bookstore and skim the synopsis at the beginning of the Cliffs Notes. Then you'll know what The Sound and the Fury signifies.

The Sound and the Fury runs through June 7. Call 747-5515.

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Jimmy Fowler