A group of melancholy suits wanders into work, finds a beat-up copy of “The Great Gatsby” and performs every last word of it…. Dionysus is played by a puppet constructed from a silver Thermos and pasted-on bug eyes…. A reconstruction of a lost Salvador Dali screenplay is written for the Marx Brothers…. A folding banquet table doubles as a bull.
Witness the weird magic of the Elevator Repair Service. The group has set out to confront “the problem of performance” through its trademark swirl of imaginative choreography and dense soundscapes.
Artistic director John Collins founded Elevator Repair Service in 1991 with a group of other performers who were committed to exploring the limits of experimental theater.
Elevator Repair Service uses “found texts” as a basis for original work, including unrealized screenplays, uncut chapters by William Faulkner, interviews with Jack Kerouac and zany meditations on documentary filmmaking.
“What we were concerned about was what was fundamental about the medium of live performance,” explains artistic director John Collins. For Collins, works written specifically for the theater have already solved the problem of performance. But, he cautions, “I would never want to make a show that anybody would have to do homework to enjoy.”
The group of nine to 11 performers spends up to 18 months on new pieces, allowing time to immerse themselves in the text, each other and the work’s physical universe.
Elevator Repair Service’s word-for-word adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” frames the novel in a generic office building; the novel is performed by the office’s bored employees and slowly begins to subsume their reality. The 2004 production, “Gatz,” put the group on the map both at home and abroad.
They followed it up with “The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928),” an ambitious
spin on the first chapter of Faulkner’s modernist masterpiece. The production silenced skeptical critics and garnered rave reviews.
The challenging piece features a dozen actors taking turns as the section’s mentally disabled narrator. Audiences familiar with the book, Collins said, found that ERS’ work made it “clearer to see and hear.”
“For the first time in a long time, I wanted to stay in a particular place, a particular universe,” Collins said.
Elevator Repair Service will conclude its cycle of “Big Three” American modernists with Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 work, “The Sun Also Rises,” about American expatriates living in post-World War I Spain.
“People joke that we’re doing the 11th grade reading list — guilty as charged,” Collins laughed. “But I do think there’s something exciting there about the kind of simplicity of all three writers.
Because Collins regards sound as a performance, the company’s technicians also appear in shows. The set for “The Sun Also Rises” includes an onstage sound station masked to look like a bar. Midi controllers and mixers will be hidden in its shelves, and sound operators will double as bartenders.
“Choreography is like shock therapy for the rehearsal process. Everything we do,” Collins explained, “is in some way or another a process of translating material to stage that wasn’t meant for the stage.”
Lacking a permanent home, Elevator Repair Service shifts rehearsal spaces frequently. As a result, the group tends to drag along props and characteristic features of various spaces along its nomadic, pre-performance journey. Their prop obsession of the moment is folding banquet tables standing in for the bulls in the famous Pamplona scenes in “The Sun Also Rises.”
“We behave like liquid that way, and we can’t help ourselves — whatever’s there, we use,” said Collins. “If we’re working with an upstage-left doorway leading to a staircase that goes out the building, that will become an element of the show on some level. We just have a way of filling whatever space we’re in,” he said.
Fellow thespians in the Brooklyn scene largely made up early audiences, but thanks to its growing body of work and blossoming relationship with the New York Theatre Workshop, Elevator Repair Service is gaining notice outside of New York.
The troupe has toured “Gatz” in Ireland and will be performing it in Brisbane and Sydney, Australia, through May.
“Gatsby is thought of as this very American story,” said Collins. “What gets lost in the mythology is what a great piece of writing it is. It’s been refreshing a thing to discover with English-speaking audiences outside of the U.S.”