The Select, Shakespeare Theatre Company

When you enter the Lansburgh Theatre to see Elevator Repair Service’s production of The Select (The Sun Also Rises), their adaption of Hemingway’s novel, the lights are already up on the set designed by David Zinn—a bar decorated with empty bottles, portraits of bullfighters, and tables already littered with half empty glasses of alcohol.  As company member Kate Scelsa enters and takes a seat long before the house lights dim, she starts to work her way through the dregs of a few wine glasses.  Soon, we realize that we’re in for a new variation of an old standby: Chekhov’s Booze.  If a glass is set out, by the end of the night, someone is going to have downed it, and the actors of the ERS do so with the relish befitting Hemingway’s story.

The Company in Elevator Repair Service's production of The Select (The Sun Also Rises)
at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Elevator Repair Service, a company of 25 years standing, completes a trilogy of adaptations of literary works with The Select, which they first performed in 2010. The style the company first adopted for their adaptation Gatz (The Great Gatsby) uses the verbatim text of the novel’s narration and dialogue, but finds equal theatrical fodder in staging the expected plot points as in discovering spaces between these moments.  Here, their eye is on Hemingway’s novel of ex-pats, alcohol, and ill-fated interconnections between an all-too-small social circle.  As our narrator and central character, Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson) serves as our introduction to ERS’s style, introducing us to the productions’ conceit of blending Hemingway’s narration and dialogue.  Iveson’s performance and John Collins’s direction compels the audience to buy into this strange theatrical undertaking, and we’d be foolish to say no.

Earlier this season, another theatre’s work reminded me that when adapting a novel for the stage, the best way forward tends to be by embracing theatricality as fully as possible.  Separate yourself from slavish devotion to the source material, and instead turn towards theatrical artifice as much as possible. This adaptation seems to challenge that assumption by using Hemingway’s actual text, but has no fear in diving headfirst into theatrical possibility.  Collins keeps the ensemble moving quickly across the stage, which can as easily transform from one bar to another as to a bullfighting arena.  Sudden choreographed dance breaks demonstrate that what we are watching is theatre, not life. Sound design by Matt Tierney and Ben Williams is run onstage by the ensemble themselves, and serves as a delightful reminder that everything we see is both carefully planned to the tiniest detail and always at risk to the vagaries of theatrical and electronic fortune. 

The ensemble does excellent work, drawing on a larger company of actors than appear on stage on a given night (the program reveals the large amount of double casting).  Iveson’s excellent Barnes is the rock of the production, with Pete Simpson (Mike Campbell), Stephanie Hayes (Brett Ashley), and even director Collins (Robert Cohn) filling out the center of Barnes’s swirling, doomed social circle.  Robert M. Johanson’s Bill Gorton provides the latter half of the production with a welcome jolt of buoyancy and good humor, while Susie Sokol is a riveting presence in the final third of the play as the young and charismatic Pedro Romero.

I’ve never been a fan of Hemingway, with a distinct lack of patience for what can seem like Lost Generation male-centering self-pitying extravagance (I know, I feel your indignation already, sorry not sorry). The difference for doubters such as myself is that here, we also gain the lens of Elevator Repair Service’s perspective on the work that they are performing for us- we never feel like we are encountering Hemingway unexamined.  Elements of Hemingway’s work that come under justified criticism (the anti-Semitism that shapes the entire character of Cohn and his treatment within the novel, for example) come to us presented by actors who can play the text in a way that can still criticize it.  Stephanie Hayes can play Brett as a woman seen entirely through Barnes’s male gaze in a manner that can also suggest that gaze is limited.  If Hemingway’s characters are obsessed with a rigid definition of masculinity, ERS can cast a woman as the character that stands as the pinnacle of that masculine ideal.   

As Chekhov’s booze is drained glass by glass over three hours, the company works very hard to draw the audience in.  At times (particularly late in the second half), that labor shows its edges, but it feels undeniable that the audience is witnessing a great feat of theatre.  Elevator Repair Service is a company that theatre lovers need to know, and it’s our good fortune that the Shakespeare Theatre Company has brought them to DC.  The Select (The Sun Also Rises) is a reminder of how we have to continually question how we make theatre from the ground up, and one I’d highly recommend theatregoers seek out.


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