The technique of story theater, developed in Chicago by Paul Sills, helps a work of fiction make the perilous passage from page to stage without failing apart. It provides the glue that holds the dialogue and the narration together. Without that glue, a piece of fiction is likely to collapse onstage in one of two ways: (1) the play will consist solely of dialogue from the story, which, by itself, does not convey the author’s perspective; or (2) a narrator will read the author’s commentary, making the stage production look like a reading illustrated by isolated skits. Either way, the fictional world created by the author is distorted.
In story theater the actors do double duty as characters and as narrators. They take turns reciting the narration, and then slip into a scene, turning to the audience when necessary to provide more narration. This description may sound peculiar, but story theater is remarkably simple and effective, as anyone who saw the nine-hour adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby a few years back can testify.
Story-theater techniques are so widely known, and so easily applied, that it’s a wonder director A.C. Thomas could allow his adaptation of The Shout to fall apart in both of the ways described above.
The Shout is a strange, eerie short story written in 1926 by the poet Robert Graves. Actually, it is a story within a story, told to the narrator by a madman named Charles Crossley, who is an inmate at an Australian lunatic asylum. Crossley tells the narrator about a musician named Richard and his wife Rachel, who wake one morning from similar dreams involving a man walking across a nearby sand dune. While Rachel prepares Sunday dinner, Richard walks to town and encounters a stranger who starts discussing a sermon he just heard on the immortality of the soul. The stranger disagrees with the preacher’s assertion that the soul is continually resident in the body.
Richard tries to escape from the stranger, whose name is Charles, but ends up inviting him to dinner instead. Charles says he has been living for 20 years with aborigines in the remote regions of Australia, where he learned a magic shout that can kill. Naturally, Richard wants to hear it, and Charles agrees to take him to a remote sand dune the following day for a demonstration. Even with his ears plugged, Richard is stunned by the shout. As he regains consciousness, he picks up a stone and suddenly believes he is a shoemaker. He discovers later that the stone contained the soul of the village shoemaker, and that the soul of every other person in the village exists simultaneously in a stone on the dune. Later, when Charles uses his powers to make Rachel fall in love with him, Richard goes back to the dune, intent on smashing the stone containing Charles’s soul. Richard decides to smash his own instead, but as soon as the hammer strikes the stone, Charles goes insane, possessed by the delusion that his soul is shattered. Charles, of course, is Charles Crossley, the narrator who is now an inmate at the asylum.
This macabre tale is fairly straightforward, but without the short story for guidance I never could have provided this synopsis, for the adaptation at the Live Theatre is inscrutable. Thomas has cluttered the show with tedious, irrelevant stage business, while simultaneously leaving out essential details.
As the play begins, for example, an actor encapsulated in a black elastic bag stretches and strains to music for several minutes. To establish the fact that Richard is a musician, Thomas has the actor, Matthew Schaefer, sit down onstage, assemble his clarinet, and play a long solo. While he’s playing, a young woman caresses him and dances. (This character, who never speaks, is not in the story. Thomas introduces her apparently to blur the distinction between dream and reality.) Thomas also has a narrator interject a couple of Australian aboriginal tales, including one about a lizard whose wife was stolen.
This clutter seems to displace essential elements of Graves’s short story, leaving the narrative fragmented and confusing. This is heightened by Thomas’s flat-footed direction, which moves the two-hour play at a snail’s pace and leaves the actors floundering. While Gretchen Sonstroem, as Rachel, and Schaefer are merely lifeless, Reid Ostrowski is more aggressively misguided. In trying to make Charles seem creepy and evil, Ostrowski ends up sounding like Alfred Hitchcock playing a malevolent butler in an English murder mystery.
Graves’s story provides interesting material for an adaptation–madness, supernatural powers, sexual tension–but Thomas lets it all crumble. First, he wrenches dialogue out of the story without the narration that puts it in context; then he supplies narration in the wrong places, and adds material that muddles the story even more. With story-theater techniques, the right narration at the right moment would have provided a lean, fluid story line. Instead, Thomas has created a plodding, turgid adaptation that seems to sneer at the principles of effective story telling and to defy the audience to figure out what’s going on.