The Select (The Sun Also Rises)

by John Stoltenberg

F. Scott Fitzgerald was among the first to take an editorial whack at Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises (then called Fiesta). Among other things cut out by Fitzgerald was the entire first part. Thus pruned to 200-plus pages, the book became a bestseller.

Some years ago a  brilliantly inventive, New York–based theater company,  Elevator Repair Service, did its own redaction, a version they turned into a story-theater-style production that the Shakespeare Theatre Company has brought to town. Now culled to two acts in three-plus hours, the book comes to life in a fascinating new light.

It’s Hemingway lite. But it’s got real bite.

Elevator Repair Service (ERS) is known for taking famous writerly texts and staging them, sometimes verbatim, as long-form literary theater. I saw ERS’s much wordier rendition of the first chapter of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in New York a few years ago and recall being transfixed by it. ERS clearly was treating the material with the presumption of an auteur, doing with Faulkner’s text something he could not possibly have had in mind. Yet as the actors delivered not only the book’s dialogue but also its richly detailed narration, the author’s voice seemed to come through with astonishing clarity.

The text of the The Select (The Sun Also Rises) is much sparer. The actors speak less narration; the dialogue is more punched up. The text has been significantly sanitized too. Hemingway’s original is shot through with homophobia, antisemitism, racism, and misogyny. Hemingway, icon of the cult of hypermasculinity in American letters, did not mince disparaging words. Wisely ERS has eliminated the racism, toned the homophobia and antisemitism way down, and left but a modicum of misogyny. The Select would have been unbearable had they not.

The agreeable result plays less like meticulously faithful readers theater and more like a breezy drama by a clever playwright who likes to keep characters tight (“tight” being Hemingwayspeak for drunk). The whole show takes place in an enticing bar set by Scenic Designer David Zinn. There are so many bottles of booze on the wall it makes one think of grabbing a preshow drink.

Hemingway’s voice is famously curt. Simple straightforward sentences. Just the facts.  The tips of icebergs. Simple subjects and straightforward verbs. No purple frou-frou.  It’s a voice so readily parodied there’s a long-running International Imitation Hemingway Competition. Curiously in The Select, that unmistakable voice seems dialed down, stripped of distinction, almost genericized. It’s certainly not what makes the performance on stage at the Lansburgh Theatre so smashingly theatrical. That honor belongs hands down to Director John Collins’s ingenious staging, the electrifying choreography by Dance & Movement Coach Katherine Profeta, and the  stunningly eloquent audio effects by Sound Designers Matt Tierney and Ben Williams.

The acting overall was fine if a little uneven, but three stellar performances enthralled me.

Kaneza Schaal plays, among other roles, the prostitute Georgette. (In life Hemingway was a john of some renown and peopled his fiction with characters based on women he had thus known).  Georgette and the main narrator Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson) take a credible horse-drawn carriage ride while simply seated on two bar chairs. (Collins’s staging beguiles like that.) In the novel Jake had a war injury that left him impotent (a point that goes by fast in this version; it’s easy to miss). So nothing happens. Except that which happens when an actor of Schaal’s stature and presence magnetizes the stage.

Kate Scelsa plays, among other roles, Frances, the girlfriend of Robert Cohn. Robert functions in the novel as Hemingway’s EveryJew, the foil for everyone else’s ambivalence/animus. So too in The Select.  (But relative to Director Collins’s better other casting, he himself does not impress in the role.) For a lot of Frances’s stage time, she fades into the background, a frumpy grumpy nobody; but when the time comes for her big monologue, it’s epic. It’s an all-out howl of grievance, a take-me-back aria of desperation, a don’t-you-dare-dump-me diatribe that would make Dreamgirls‘ Effie blush. Scelsa’s performance stops the show, and nothing else ever tops it. Not even the big bullfight scene in Act Two (which must be seen to be believed).

The character of Brett Ashley stands apart from the parade of submissive women in Hemingway’s oeuvre. Because she sports a boyish haircut, calls herself a “chap,” sleeps with whomever she wants, and has an unintimidatable libido, she is seen by many as thoroughly modern but mannish. That gender bending matters not to all the  men in The Sun Also Rises who are smitten by her. Instead it accounts for her allure. (Hey, a woman with a man’s sex drive; let’s take her for a spin.) To say that Stephanie Hayes nails the role would be an understatement. In its fierce sensuality and psychic force, hers is a performance one cannot take one’s eyes off. Happily she is on stage a lot.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that these three performances of women characters all caught my eye. For ERS’s lively digest of Hemingway’s novel lets a sexual political theme shine through that might not jump off the page while reading. That theme is Hemingway’s fantasy of the shared woman. She whom many he’s have sex with like frat boys who hired a hooker—except of course separately, more decorously, with worldly sophistication, and with a woman who knows her own mind and owns her own body.

What’s fascinating about how this fantasy plays out in The Select is that all the men are fully cognizant of all the other men’s sexual relations with Brett. (Jake’s counts even though he can’t.) And they’re all okay with it. More than okay, actually. It’s almost as if they all bond through Brett’s body.

Another role very well played by a woman, Susie Sokol, is a teenage boy, the matador Pedro Romero—whose beauty holds appeal for Jake and prompts Brett to forthwith bed him. So even Pedro gets pledged to the men’s club.

You may not see what I saw in The Select (The Sun Also Rises). But if you see it for yourself during its run at the Lansburgh  (as you should), you will not lack for brainwork later. It’s one of those captivating shows whose implications kick in after curtain call.