Emilia Di Luca
Staging an adaptation of a Southern Gothic novel is a challenge. Riding an invisible wagon, a challenge. Performing an underwater scene in slow motion, another challenge. Theatre Smith-Gilmour conquered all three.
Take Me Back to Jefferson, the stage adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, returns to Factory Theatre after a 2013 run, earning multiple Dora nominations. Co-directors, writers and actors, Dean Gilmour and Michele Smith evoke sympathy, disgust and laughter as the Bundren family—one of the oddest families in American literature—journeys to Jefferson.
In the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, Addie (Michele Smith), wife of Anse Bundren (Dean Gilmour), dies with one wish: to be buried in Jefferson. To honour her wish, Anse loads his wagon with his wife’s body and their children—Cash (Dan Watson), Darl (Julian De Zotti), Dewy Dell (Nina Gilmour), Vardaman (Daniel Roberts) and Jewel (Ben Muir), who is really the illegitimate child of Addie and Reverend Whitefield (also played by Dean Gilmour). However, some of the Bundrens have their own selfish reasons for trekking to Jefferson.
Along the way, the colourful family faces a furious storm, busted bridge and barn fire, among other challenges. Quite literally, man faces off with nature. Meanwhile, actors and designers wrestle with the nature of the theatre—how would Smith-Gilmour stage these forces? With lights, designer André du Toit assaults Factory’s Mainspace with jarring lightning, violent waters and blazing fires, which the outstanding ensemble brings to life.
Except for some chairs and a wooden plank, the set is invisible, but shaped by lighting and blocking. You won’t see the flames swallowing the barn, but you will feel it. The fire red of lights and crackling of wood evoke horror as Jewel frees the barn’s invisible animals, whose “baa”s and “neigh”s come from the actors off-stage. The co-directors also evoke drama with slow motion throughout the play. As Jewel runs into the barn, his family chases him in slow motion as red lights paint their faces.
Likewise, when the Bundren brothers retrieve their mother’s coffin from violent waters, deep blue lights flood the stage and the boys swim in slow motion underwater. Every time the boys resurface, the blue lights and slow motion stop.
Slow motion is only one way that the cast showcases its outstanding physicality. The cast reacts to heavy weight, rocky roads, raindrops and wild horses that appear invisible, but thanks to the actors, feel real. Muir as Jewel stands out as he tames and rides an invisible horse. At times, Muir embodies both Jewel and the horse almost simultaneously.
In addition, the actors took on multiple roles as townspeople. As townspeople, actors wear cartoonish noses, thanks to costume designer Teresa Przybylski. The noses change the actors’ features dramatically and give the show a charmingly funny aesthetic.
The only moment to puzzle me was Jefferson’s opening. Before the house lights dimmed, the Bundrens walked about the stage seemingly without purpose. Nonetheless, Jefferson’s ending dazzled me. The Bundren children sit on the wagon munching on bananas in disgust of Anse who calls over his new “Mrs. Bundren.” The best part: this scene is in slow motion.
Take Me Back to Jefferson plays at Factory Theatre until Nov. 23. For more information and tickets, visit: http://www.factorytheatre.ca/201415-season/take-me-back-to-jefferson/.