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Music of the Spoken Word

Elevator Repair Service's "Shuffle" is more of a stunt than an enduring work of art, but it's a cool stunt.

I just got back from experiencing Elevator Repair Service’s Shuffle at the Brooklyn Public Library (part of the Brooklyn Beats festival), and all I can say is: boy, I wish Alan Jacobs had been there with me. Either he’d have loved it or he’d have explained to me why I should hate it.

I had seen one ERS production before, their tour-de-force show, GATZ, an eight-hour (including a dinner break) marathon “reading” of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. What was most powerful about that show, beyond the power of the book itself, was the way in which it enacted not so much the book itself as the significance of the experience of reading, and reading a book far from our own experience.

To digress for a moment (since I never reviewed GATZ), that show was set in a grubby basement office of some low-rent business, where male and female office grunts go about their dreary daily lives. This particular morning, the computers aren’t working, and so one employee decides, rather than simply wait for the opportunity to work, he’ll start reading The Great Gatsby, which happens to be in his filofax. Only, he reads it out loud. And, bit by bit, the rest of the cast gets drawn into the action, taking on one part after another in the drama.

The thing is, they don’t exactly wind up playing these parts, because they remain themselves – grubby office workers. And the correspondences between their “office” personalities and their “Gatsby” personalities are complex. Tom, for example, is played not by a to-the-manner-born pompous rich guy – there is none such in this underground outfit – but by a blue-collar type. And yet, the identification sticks – we feel this guy thinks he understands Tom, thinks Tom is his kind of guy – a man of sense and a man of hungers – a real man, like himself. Gatsby is played by a tall, huge-headed fellow who, for the first chunk of the book, seems simply annoyed that the rest of the office is caught up in this Gatsby nonsense, and then suddenly, at the right moment, he enters into the fantasy, and when he finally reveals who he is –

“This is an unusual party for me. I haven’t even seen the host. I live over there—-” I waved my hand at the invisible hedge in the distance, “and this man Gatsby sent over his chauffeur with an invitation.” For a moment he looked at me as if he failed to understand.

“I’m Gatsby,” he said suddenly.

– it’s a real coup de theatre. Of course he’s Gatsby. Of course there’s a whole other dimension to this physically imposing and kind of scary fellow who keeps himself aloof from the rest of the office. He’s got a whole new universe a-borning under that dome of a head of his. He’s Gatsby!

This dynamic powers the show, which was, for me anyway, not so much about the book as about why we read a book like that, how we, who are so little like the East and West Egg sets on the surface, internalize these characters and make them into ourselves (rather as Gatsby remade himself). You could play the same game with Madame Bovary or Don Quixote or Pride or any other book that speaks deeply to us even across an apparently unbridgeable gap in terms of social context.

Well, they did, but the two books they picked were The Sun Also Rises and The Sound and the Fury. I haven’t seen those two ERS shows, but they – with GATZ – form the essential precursors to Shuffle. Because what they’ve done with Shuffle is take these three  prior shows and hand them over to William S. Burroughs to have a go with his scissors, and then attempt to “stage” the results.

I mean that pretty literally. They’ve chopped up these three novels, put the various lines – dialogue, description, whatever – into a computer program which spits them out in a not-exactly-random-but-not-exactly-sensible order, assigning them fairly randomly to different actors, who then run around the library clutching books with embedded smart phones, attempting to “act” these bits of prose as soon as the computer spits them out to them – playing them to each other, to the audience, to the books in the library; whatever’s to hand.

Some of the results were quite poetic. There were a series of catechistic bits – repeated “whys” answered with “because” phrases, repeated “whos” answered with a variety of names – that were reminiscent of the catechistic chapter late in Ulysses. Sometimes an actor would just wander off, describing a woman, or a man, from a collection of descriptions culled from dozens of characters across the three books – calling out different members of the audience around to fit (sensibly or ironically). Other bits were dramatic. Sometimes two actors would turn their apparently nonsensical dialogue into a fierce argument, or an entire group would erupt in mutual frustration. Or, sometimes, what you got was pure comic nonsense, as when the computer sped up the “dialogue” between two women at a laptop who frantically grabbed one book after another to signify “reading” their line, making it completely impossible to actually hear anything, or do anything but giggle at the Lucille Ball-esque absurdity of this mode of “acting.”

But that last was not the dominant mode of the evening; most of the time, you could hear the lines, and there was a real attempt to “play” them, somehow. The effect was radically different from GATZ, because there was no sense, any longer, that we were dealing with distinct characters. Rather, all that was left was the cadence of language, radically divorced from its original context, and what kind of mood that language could produce, all by itself, in the actor and in the audience. And, strangely, it continued to work, in a fashion. It worked best when I recognized it – which, having seen GATZ within the last few months, I was much better able to do with the Fitzgerald than with the Faulkner or the Hemmingway. (That is to say: I could often – though not always – tell who the author of a particular line was, but with the Fitzgerald I frequently had some idea where in the book the line was from, and the original context, which was not the case with the others.) When the line was familiar, I had the sensation you get when you make or get a literary reference – the distinct pleasure of repurposing language and thereby making yourself the author of the Quixote. When I didn’t recognize any context, I was left only with the music of the language which harmonized surprisingly well between these quite different authors.

Shuffle is more of a stunt than an enduring work of art, but it’s a cool stunt, that hopefully will lead to further, more serious experiments. Because we need such experiments. This theatre company is well named, because our elevators – what bring us up, through text and live performance and the interaction between the two – are in need of repair. And anything that startles us into a recognition of how inevitably penetrated we are by language – and how pleasurable is that recognition when the language is good – brings us up, if just to a slightly higher floor.



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