Mixing Minimalism with Risk in As I Lay Dying

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Vancouver’s annual PuSh International Performing Arts Festival aims to tell stories of human folly, grief and love. The festival thrives on re-telling and adapting tales in unique and innovative ways, so it is no wonder a play based on William Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying, is a perfect fit. Bringing Faulkner to the stage is a risky endeavour but with the help of Arts Club and the PuSh Festival, Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s stage adaptation of this classic American novel is able to shine. A minimalist approach means set, props and sound are all reimagined in simple yet alluring ways.

As I Lay Dying tells the Southern Gothic tale of the Bundren’s, a poor family living in rural Mississippi. The story begins when their matriarch, Addie (Michele Smith), dies and her wish of being buried forty miles away forces her family to embark on a long and tumultuous journey. Anse Bundren (Dean Gilmour) along with his teenage daughter Dewey Dell (Nina Gilmour), and four sons (played by Eli Ham, Julian De Zotti, Benjamin Muir and Daniel Roberts) end up on an exhausting, dangerous and darkly humoured excursion.

As expected, Mississippi accents are present throughout the play except for when it comes to Michele Smith. Michele sticks to a French accent and although her words are few, her choice makes for some confusion. Overall, the dialogue and acting strengthens any lack of southern drawls leaving it a minimal distraction. The flow of the timing and speech patterns of the characters takes some getting used to but once comfortable with the pacing the story flies eloquently from scene to scene.

Instead of hauling giant sets or prop for their production, Theatre Smith-Gilmour is able to create different spaces using light and sound. For example, using a horizontal ray of to portray a hallway, a sleek separation between rooms. Alternately, a blue light, matched with the intense sound of rapids, serves as a convincing representation of a treacherous river. Many sounds are actually done by the actors themselves, both onstage and offstage. 

Special kudos goes out to Benjamin Muir who plays the rebellious Jewel Bundren. With the use of his physicality he is able to turn an imaginary horse, which he ride and tames throughout the show, into reality. The work of Nina Gilmour, particularly in act two, is also something to watch. Her vulnerability and desperation as Dewey Dell is heartbreaking especially when it brings her to a heated headway with her father Anse. Overall the cast shines because of their ability to work together and create an imaginative stage experience.

Catch As I Lay Dying from now until February 12th at the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Centre and you’ll walk away with a revitalized feel for this Faulkner classic.