Shuffle, an offering of the Beat Festival, was performed by Elevator Repair Service at the Brooklyn Public Library. Shuffle is an experimental theater piece that incorporates text from three celebrated Elevator Repair Service theater productions (Gatz, The Sound and the Fury, and The Select) that adapted text from the literary classics The Great Gatsby, The Sound and the Fury and The Sun Also Rises.
In Shuffle, the actors held paperback copies of the novels as if reading from them, but really they were reading passages from the books from an iPod, or some such electronic device taped inside the pages. The script was being sent to them via a coworker manning a laptop who sat at a table in the library; the artistic director sat beside him through much of the production.
Audience members were encouraged to follow the actors around the library as they read from the texts. There were eight actors reading to an estimated 80 audience members in attendance. Center stage was the library help desk. This is where the actors met up to read together as a group. They read not necessarily from the same book or the same section of a book.
Their verbal exchanges often made no sense. Nevertheless, there was coherency to grasp onto – through the meter of the lines perhaps. Conversely, at times two or three actors read the same text at the same time or close in time, echoing each other. Certain passages of obvious literary merit were read repeatedly throughout the evening.
We, the actors and the audience, walked the length of the reading room, or stood alone or in groups among the book shelves, like in a dream. One could argue the production was profoundly disjointed, too disjointed. Yet there were sublime moments and hosts of reasons why audience members would follow actors at any given time; one, for example, out of conscience actors did not venture off to some remote corner of the room without a listener in tow.
During the third act, a notable portion of audience members took to sitting at tables (call it stage left), reading the books put out for us, while listening to the actors. It was strangely touching to watch the actors move into the sitting area to respond to this action. This wayward drift did not compromise the production structure; actors continued to work the entire room; the library help desk remained center stage regardless of audience inclination.
Shuffle encouraged the realization that individual participation, in its many forms, shapes how a society functions. The audience members shared responsibility for the success of the production. During the fourth act, while not the best act, I felt a sharp pang of regret that my life would one day end. What more could one ask for from a theater production than a moment of self-awareness while part of a gathering of adventurous, thoughtful people?