Theatre Smith-Gilmour's As I Lay Dying, on at the BMO Theatre Centre in a co-presentation between the Arts Club and the PuSh Festival, is a wildly imaginative, intensely physical and overlong adaptation of William Faulkner's classic novel. There were moments last night when I was swept away by the company's evocative conjuring--mostly with just their bodies and their voices--of the absurd gothic plight of the Bundren family; just as frequently I found myself checking my watch, worried that the journey we were witnessing would never end.
At the start of Faulkner's novel the family matriarch, Addie Bundren (Michele Smith), is dying. From her bedroom window she can see her oldest son, Cash (Eli Ham), building her coffin. Addie wishes to be buried in Jefferson, Mississippi, normally a day's drive from the family's rural homestead. But the night Addie dies, a cyclone sweeps in, bringing torrential rain and washing away the bridges that will have to be crossed in order to get to Jefferson. Nevertheless, Addie's stubborn husband, Anse (a grizzled Dean Gilmour), insists on honouring his wife's wishes--though not, as we discover at the novel's end, out of any abiding love or grief for the woman he has lost. And so the entire family, which includes sons Darl (a compelling Julian De Zotti), Jewel (Benjamin Muir) and Vardaman (Daniel Roberts), and daughter Dewey Dell (a luminous Nina Gilmour), set out by wagon with their mother's coffin.
The narrative innovation of Faulkner's novel, published in 1930, is that he has each of the novel's chapters is told from a different point of view, with the above mentioned family members supplemented by local townsfolk, and with Addie even taking a turn after she's died. The montage-like effect of the novel, with several incidents presented from multiple, overlapping perspectives, falls curiously flat on stage, with the frequent blackouts and spotlit outs to the audience in which different characters reveal to us aspects of their interior lives, actually doing more to disrupt than to establish a sense of dramatic rhythm. I actually think the production errs by being too discursive.
Much more successful is the piece's physical score. Smith and Gilmour, who trained with Jacques Lecoq, are known for their stripped-down staging, using only a bare stage, a few props and their actors' bodies to create whole worlds. And so it is that we can see and hear Addie's coffin being built for us, the sound of Cash's saw and later the back and forth sweep of his lathe both brought to life for us solely through actor Ham's voice and bodily movements. The scene in which the three oldest sons are trying to cross the rushing river with their mother's coffin is a marvel of choreographic complexity. Ditto the equally elemental scene in which Jewel later rescues the coffin from a burning barn, a blaze which it turns out has been set deliberately by Darl. The slow-motion tableau of the family on the wagon at the end of the play as they await the surprise appearance of Anse's new bride is also a highlight.
I also give credit to Smith-Gilmour for brining out what still feels contemporary about Faulkner's novel, including how little has changed (and what in fact has since been eroded) in the southern US about women's access to abortion. This particular subplot explains Dewey Dell's wish to accompany her mother's body to Jefferson, and Anse's thwarting of this goal by absconding with her money in order to purchase a set of false teeth makes clear the feminist critique Faulkner has embedded in his narrative. Then, too, as Julian De Zotti pointed out in the talkback after last night's performance, the so-called "madness" of Darl, a veteran from WW I, is likely a product of what today we would call PTSD. One can see, then, why the ensemble would want to mine so assiduously, in language and in movement, this text's rich themes. That said, I think there is still more stripping away that can be undertaken in this production in order to provide more direct access to the emotional truths that the company is after.