William Faulkner never turned into a mannequin. As far as we know.
Therefore, perhaps, Mirrors of Chartres Street by local playwright Rob Florence, currently on the boards at the CAC, is a calm meditation on the early career of Mississippi's Nobel Prize-winning novelist. A calm meditation, that is, in comparison with Florence's previous play Burn K-Doe Burn, which featured not only the singer's famous life-size effigy, but even K-Doe's widow. That slam-bang drama focused on the flamboyant downhill tumble of K-Doe's life.
The Faulkner piece is entirely different in its aims and approach. Our interest in the central figure is chiefly based on the resonance of his name. It's as if we watched a play about some yokel from Stratford named Will, who got hired by a fluke by the manager of the Globe theater in London because they needed some bloke to help move the furniture.
Florence does give us evidence of Faulkner's early potential, however. He brings to life short scenes based on the sketches of New Orleans life that Faulkner was writing at the time. In that sense, Mirrors of Chartres Street is a portrait of the artist as a young man.
On one side of the stage, there is a small desk with a typewriter. The year is 1925 and the desk is where Faulkner (Ryan Reinike) cranks out the pieces he's selling to The Times-Picayune -- as well as writing his poetry and working on a novel. This workspace is in the French Quarter apartment of artist William Spratling (Mikko), who shares his pad and his booze with his good buddy. In fact, by the end of the evening, Faulkner has bolted down enough firewater to alert even an audience of Big Easy hedonists that his liver is in for a beating.
The other side of the stage is devoted to Faulkner's imagination (or anecdotes he's written about the life he's observed around him -- most probably, in fact, some combination of the two). Shipping crates are scattered around. The six actors who bring various characters to life sit on the crates in still poses, as though resting or in thought.
Then, one, two or three of the actors create a slice-of-life scene. For instance, two low-rent hustlers argue about stealing a crate. Sitting on the floor is one guy's son, but he's a "looney." He's totally entranced by a flower that he holds before his face and peruses. When the flower breaks, the looney starts howling. This wrecks the heist by attracting attention -- but also attracts pity, so the thieves are spared. Of course, you see a "looney" and you think The Sound and the Fury -- but the connection is implied, rather than stated.
Some of the scenes link together into longer dramas and some of the characters recur. An aspiring young jockey struggles with a sleazy trainer at the racetrack. An Italian merchant gets into a jealous tantrum over his wife. A prostitute sadly contemplates aging and the hundreds of worms who died to make the silk dress she sold her body to buy. A black guy from a farm sets out for Africa, with no idea where Africa is or how to get there. Various white folks part him from his money. In the end, he panics and shoots his shotgun from the top of a haystack where he's taken refuge. He's gunned down by National Guard soldiers, who think he's gone insane.
Between these anecdotes, we see moments from Faulkner's life, mostly having to do with him and Spratling. These glimpses give a sense of the writer's day-to-day problems and struggles. Many of the scenes concern when and if he will go to Europe. In one, we learn how he got his first pipe and in another why he added the "u" to his last name. These episodes seem more a framing device than a narrative, however, and while it would be false to force a meaning, one does long for more of a point -- for something at issue in the life of this artist as a young man.
Director Mikko has elicited engaging performances from the capable cast. Claudia Baumgarten, Mage Macchione, Troy Poplous, Brendolyn McKenna and Raphaelle O'Neil take multiple roles and give each a distinct, convincing identity. Ryan Reinike shows us a self-assured, striving young bohemian who may be in straitened circumstances, but most certainly knows and values his own worth.
This agreeable excursion into the literary past of the Vieux Carr would improve by some cutting and a clearer focus.
- Troy Poplous appears in the dramatizations of William Faulkner's sketches, originally published in The Times- Picayune .