Faulkner Project: Blazing Theatre at UMBC
- by James Howard

According to the extensive lobby displays, The Faulkner Project: As I Lay Dying which opened last night at UMBC, was modeled on a German method of immersing a group of artists for several months to work on one piece. Time and the fast-paced American way, the display explains, is why the UMBC Department of Theatre used the same format, but only 9 weeks time working on creating a piece based on one of William Faulkner's greatest novels, As I Lay Dying. Those nine weeks were clearly time very well spent, as the production is absolutely riveting in its complex, yet accessible, take on a difficult work. Channeling a novel (especially one as complicated as the one used here) into a work of theatre is never easy, but this collaboration between writer, faculty, and students is nothing less than a triumph.

Another of the lobby displays contains quotes from the actors discussing the process and its effect on performance. Their thoughtful musings and pragmatic statements serve to enlighten what happens on that stage. All are credited with contributing to the text (plus a few college scholars, including director Robert Allen). It must have been a beautiful thing to watch this piece grow from blank page to full staging, and also to watch the actors carve out individual identities while bonding into one of the most cohesive ensembles I have ever seen at any level, from Broadway on down. To a person, the focus, intensity and bold feeding off of each other's energies are simply astonishing. Mr. Allen has molded not only a near brilliant piece of original theatre, but created a razor sharp, tight staging with stunning stage pictures and jaw-dropping transitions. And he has nicely reigned in the actors' performances, which are uniformly fresh and exciting, but could very easily have slipped into self-indulgency.

Each of the eight cast members has individual moments to shine, but it is when they are creating scenery and/or expressing themes through movement, posture and proximity that they virtually explode with youthful vitality and strength, an often overlooked undercurrent in Faulkner's works. In the space of 70 minutes, the cast becomes, at various times, farm animals, a raging river, and barn-raisers. And in one instance, a cast member becomes a fire, through a brilliant lighting effect designed by Terry Cobb.

As I Lay Dying concerns the poor Southern Bundren family, who, at their late mother's request, must move her casket from their home to a plot in Jefferson, Mississippi, so that she may lay to rest with her own people. This, of course, is to the dismay of neighbors and others along the way, as the journey takes days, and her corpse is rotting at a quick pace in the summer heat.This simple task is made into an epic journey as the family must fight fire, flood, public disgust, and ultimately each other. Typical of Faulkner's work, the novel is full of quirky, specific characters. Also typical is his use of stream-of-consciousness writing, where events are told from all points of view of the participants (including the dead mother). The result is a piece that unfolds in a dramatically piecemeal fashion. This style of writing lends itself beautifully to theatre, as characters deliver scorching monologues and recreate dialogue. You are probably asking yourself, do I need to read the book to understand it? Not at all; though, if you are really unsure, Googling the book title for a summary of the characters might help. This work asks a lot of its performers and a lot of its audience.

Being listed alphabetically in the program, and taking one simple company bow at the end, it is clear that the affair is meant to highlight everyone equally. To honor that, I will evaluate each actor in that same way, calling none a lead. And in reality, some actors speak more than others, but those with fewer lines are as powerful in their silence. Katie Anson, as Cora Tull (chiefly) and other characters throughout, is a terrific presence, nailing her accent, and bringing out all of the intricate qualities of a superior busybody neighbor. Natalie Blank, with endearing facial expression and a serious physical presence (she at one point solely embodies a raging river), is most memorable for her final monologue. She, in stream-of-consciousness, closes the play discussing the themes and discoveries of the novel, the project and the piece, even invoking Oprah Winfrey, who in recent years had this book in her book club. Travis Hudson, as both Faulkner himself, and the introspective Darl Bundren embodies what this entire production strives to do. He uses his entire body, like any good actor will, to convey a myriad of emotions, often wordlessly. His soulful eyes and amazing bent posture (held motionless for several of the show's final moments) are amazingly, achingly revealing. The diminutive Riley Koren, as Dewey Dell, the naive, simple daughter of the family, delivers an amazingly layered, complicated performance, both physically and vocally. Koren is called upon to create a character who finds herself in more trouble than she can handle - a simpleton in many ways, but also complex - and she does so with great skill. As the narrator who morphs into the deceased Addie Bundren, Karen Landry has raised the pregnant pause to a near artform, as she artfully wraps her tongue around some very colorful (and difficult) language. Her large-eyed expressions are very spooky and work to a very dramatic effect. Patrick Letterii, as the angry bastard son, Jewel, is a thrilling presence. Much is made in the novel of Jewel and horses, and in this piece that literary imagery is brought to full life as Mr. Letterii is simultaneously the wild Jewel and the wild horse. His movement is a beautiful dance, both graceful and violent. Aaron Moss, as Cash, the almost scientific son, is also a wonder, as he delivers what amounts to a lecture about how to step by step construct a casket, and later must cope with, of all things, a cement cast on his broken leg. He gives the character a grace and dignity that is endearing. Finally, Alexander Scally creates a wide variety of smaller roles, ranging from Tull, the neighbor to the slimy reverend and father of Jewel, to the equally slimy druggist who lures a desperate Dewey Dell into a life changing trap. Each is wonderfully distinct, well thought out and fully realized. Only once, and very briefly, did the evening seem even a little forced, or the acting a little too self-aware. This is shortly after the start of the show when a bizarre (and it seems purposely so) narrator figure (played by Karen Landry), made up like the Emcee, but dressed like a Sally Bowles in Cabaret, and talking like a stilted Norma Desmond, with over-dramatic gaps in speech, "sets the stage". It is the only moment in the entire thing that is out of place and unnecessarily showy. But soon enough, the actress gets a handle on it, and the character, like the rest fit into the flow. It should be said that I don't believe that this slight misstep is any fault of the actress, as she seems to be very much in control of her performance, but rather is the result of a combination of too earnest direction and text.

Technically, the show shares in the brilliance of the performance, as each element contributes seamlessly to the whole. The costumes (designed by Melanie Lester - the colorful sketches and her "process" explained in another lobby display) are perfect for the show simultaneously adding color to the bland (not a bad thing, here) palate of the set and creating character. Great care has also been taken to allow for rapid, often mid-scene costume changes, all done in view of the audience, which adds another fine layer of theatricality. When the actors are nameless members of a sort of Greek chorus, they all wear beige, in a style reminiscent of 1940's undergarments and seamstress' dress forms or perhaps early 20th century gymnasium togs. And while the ladies wear feminine styles and the men wear masculine styles, there is a certain sexless androgyny to the ensemble. The set, designed by Tama Szalczer, is an odd, grey and black array of ramps, spaces and poles, which, like the ensemble costumes, allows for a variety of interpretations. It is at once bland, like the lives of the characters, and startling, and suggests both a past of struggle and a future full of endless possibilities. And, in addition to the stunning fire effect, Terry Cobb has used the nearly blank canvas to full advantage, creating beautiful color washes and effectively white lighting to highlight the moods and colors of the story. Special kudos are also due to dramaturg Gedalya Chinn and her staff (Laurel Haac, Sarah Norton and Alan Kriezenbeck) who have really done their homework, and have provided wonderful background information in those lobby displays. (You really should be sure to arrive early to take all of this in!)

This stunning, vibrant production was greeted with you-could-hear-a-pin-drop silence for the entire performance the night I attended, so carefully attentive the audience was. And you should not miss this wonderful, theatrical piece.

James was first bitten by the theatre bug at the tender young age of 11, when, at the last minute, he was called upon to replace a classmate who, 42nd STREET-like, broke his leg, in a play, of all things, about the skeletal system! It was a trip to New York with his high school drama teacher to see Angela Lansbury in MAME that sealed his fate. As an actor, favorite roles include Sheridan Whiteside in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, Potiphar in JOSEPH..., Col. Pickering in MY FAIR LADY, and Sancho Panza?s ass in MAN OF LA MANCHA. After spending a summer feeling very conflicted playing both an apostle AND a high priest in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, James' theatre career took a turn toward direction and design, including such varied productions as THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, LOST IN YONKERS, GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER and GRAND HOTEL, SIDE SHOW, THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD and SWEENEY TODD. James holds a Bachelor's degree in English from Towson University, with additional course work in journalism, dramaturgy, scenic design and stage direction. He is living proof that you can be a devout Sondheim fan AND love MAMMA MIA!