The Realism of Retro

At the Wiener Festwochen, Elevator Repair Service revive modernism in a stylish parody of the ‘Lost Generation’

On The Town | Laurence Doering | July / August 2011

A New York-based ensemble tours through Europe performing a play about Americans in Europe. Reality and Representation are often indistinguishable in The Select, an adaptation  of Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, staged by the group Elevator Repair Service and director John Collins at the Wiener Festwochen this June. As such, they went a long way towards articulating a contemporary modernism for the stage.

The play is about a generation of young, American war veterans (in this case, it is World War I), estranged from their homeland and adrift in Europe. They live in Paris, profess to be writers, and gather at the Café Select to drink themselves senseless. Among these lost young things is Jake Barnes; he is in love with Brett Ashley, who cultivates the facade of a careless, hard-partying, English aristocrat. She loves him too, but they can never be lovers: a war-injury has left Barnes permanently impotent.

In this unspeakable situation, distraction becomes the only solution; it is found in the company of a glib Greek Count, in relentlessly jolly conversation, in dance, booze, and a trip to Spain: the main characters converge in Pamplona for its famous fiesta and bull-fighting. Barnes and Brett are joined by her rich and obnoxious fiancée Mike Campbell, Bill Gorton who is visiting from New York, and Robert Cohn. Cohn is also in love with Brett and wants to be friends with Barnes, but is despised by everyone for being a constant, annoying "presence", his supposed brooding and self-pity detracting from others’ enjoyment. Anti-Semitism is rampant, although everyone admits privately that Cohn is "quite nice". The tension between the characters is never resolved, but simply ebbs and flows, as confrontation is followed by avoidance.

The urgent formal question, of course, is whether the novel was successfully transferred to the stage.  The answer broadly speaking, is yes: intriguingly, the ensemble retained large chunks of Hemingway’s voice, with Barnes as the main narrator, interchanging with dialogue. This means that Barnes references his own speech, as in "I’ve got to go upstairs and get off some cables, I said"; as well as recounting the brilliance of the Spanish countryside or revealing fragments of other characters’ past. True to modernist form, however, Barnes has no monopoly on truth: The narrator’s voice trans-migrates from one character to another: During the Pamplonese bullfight, for instance, the bullfighter relates the animal’s supple ferocity, while engaging it in mime.

Parody is the defining register of the play: The star torrero, Pedro Romero, is played by a petite female actor, with an enormous codpiece down her tights, and a thick, faux-Spanish accent. Paris is equally stereotyped: Waiters slap their tea-towels noisily to their shoulders with a contemptuous glare, everybody is always smoking, and the outré French accents are grating. In this American projection of "France," the stereotypes mingle with pop culture:

At the Café Select, we hear the jinglings of American jazz pianist Art Tatum in the background; street sounds are pierced by Jean Seberg hollering "New York Herald Tribune", lifted from Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless. Costumes are a retro-fantasy of the 1920s, with a dash of the 90s: girls sidle by in short dresses with fluorescent geometrical shapes, worn with leggings and a pair of brogues; guys are wrapped in waistcoats and skinny jeans.

The dance sequences are exaggerated and silly, evoking a "what do I care" attitude of New York cool. This could easily be the choreography for an American Apparel ad: That, too, is a fair depiction of "Americans in Europe".

It is through this up-beat, indie parody, that Elevator Repair Service is most successful in bringing modernism to the contemporary stage. Where-ever we look, we see fabricated identities, stereotype, quotation. As such, the ensemble holds up a mirror to an audience that is distinctly retro-chic, in love with the re-imagined glamour of the 1920s.

There are drawbacks: the performance is often too gimmicky and the dance sequences too long, unnecessarily stretching the play to a yawning three and a half hours. Also, Mike Iveson (Barnes) is too casual as narrator: Addressing the audience directly, his style of speech is utterly contemporary and utterly American, featuring exaggerated facial expressions, rolling eyeballs, and a smirk that never leaves his face. He’s more Park Slope than Paris; more Starbucks than Café Select. Similarly, Matt Tierney (Cohn) is so wooden that he seems lifted from an after-work drama club in New Jersey. By contrast, Lucy Taylor (Brett) is consistently engaging, her upper-class drawl alternating between parody and believability. In large part, it is her acting that sustains the fundamental sadness of the play.

I see how Iveson’s wink to the audience and Tierney’s amateurishness could add to the production’s modernism, by undermining the audience’s belief in the reality of the world on-stage. But there are better ways of doing this than through bad acting. The dance sequences, for instance, excel in giving the impression that what we are watching is simply a bunch of hip Brooklynites amusing themselves by putting on a play.

But it wouldn’t be modernism if there weren’t a longing for truth and unity underlying the apparent fragmentation and dissolution. There is the yearning for home beneath an ostentatious cosmopolitanism, as when Bill Gorton says to Barnes that "no expatriate has ever written anything worth printing." And there is the longing for true, innocent love: in a key scene, Barnes helps Brett seduce the young bullfighter Pedro Romero, as if to consummate their love by proxy.

Similarly, it is obvious that the characters are unhappy and self-destructive: Their forced jolliness fails to convince. By the same token, the men and women from Elevator Repair Service, despite seeming at ease with postmodern artifice and internationalism, are seeking their roots: It is a distinctly American modernism they are attempting to revive, The Sun Also Rises was the last installment of a trilogy of Great American Novels the group has adapted for the stage (the others are F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury).

As such, the ensemble mirrors the conflicted identity of the characters it presents, perhaps even the conflicted identity of a generation that seeks to make their homes with vintage furniture and borrowed tastes.

Modernism is the new postmodernism, darling!

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