This ambitious, discursive literary adaptation is often thrilling despite its imperfections.
Chilean author and poet Roberto Bolaño’s cultish following in the English-speaking world developed after his death in 2003, with his sprawling novels mostly getting translations in the last 10 years. The posthumous Spanish-language publication of his 2666, a meandering, nearly 900-page epic in five distinct, loosely related parts, helped bring about that rush of English translations with its rapturous reception. Goodman Theatre artistic director Robert Falls fell under the book’s spell without even reading it, entranced by a poster he saw in Barcelona long before 2666 was available in English; after later reading it, he became determined to adapt this seemingly unadaptable work for the stage.
Falls is no stranger to such daunting tasks, of course, and he brought on as co-adapter and co-director Seth Bockley, who’s made memorable stage pieces out of literary sources like George Saunders's short stories. Their end result, a five-and-a-half-hour monster with a dizzying array of locales by scenic designer Walt Spangler and a cast of 15 playing dozens of roles, is a fascinating and impressive if not completely successful feat.
The five parts of the novel are stylistically diverse enough that Bolaño reportedly considered publishing them separately. The nexus of the five is the Mexican city of Santa Teresa, a fictionalized version of Ciudad Juarez, a bleak destination known for its worker-exploiting factories and its years-long epidemic of unsolved murders of women. Parts 2, 3 and 4 take place in Santa Teresa, documenting both the murders and the place’s general sense of despair; they’re bookended by chapters set in Europe both in the present and the past.
Part one is an arch, nearly farcical story of four academics bonded by their devotion to an author with the improbable name of Benno Von Archimboldi, so reclusive that almost nothing is known about him. The scholars’ friendship takes an erotic turn, particularly after three of them embark on a quixotic trip to Mexico on shaky evidence that Archimboldi has been spotted there. Other parts focus on a Spanish professor teaching in Santa Teresa, haunted by his fear for his daughter’s safety and the memory of her mother, who left them years earlier; a black American journalist who’s there to cover a boxing match but gets drawn in by the professor’s daughter as well as the underreported spate of murders; and the investigation of the murders by an only semi-interested police force.
Falls and Bockley’s adaptation makes smart and necessary cuts to Bolaño’s wildly digressive narrative, streamlining it just enough to retain a sense of the discursive ride. Onstage, 2666 feels rather like a collection of one-act plays that happen to share a few characters, connected by thematic threads like references to Don Quixote, Moby Dick, giants and madness; a more direct line is drawn between the general indifference to the Mexican femicides and the lack of action over treatment of Jews in the road to the Holocaust.
The script is hampered at least a bit by an over-reliance on shared narration drawn directly from Bolaño; often, it seems the characters are addressing us more than they do each other, with some passages feeling more like a reading than a dramatization. Bolaño makes a point of never giving readers a glimpse of Archimboldi’s much-discussed writing, but Falls and Bockley perhaps lean too much on Bolaño’s.
But there are strong, even indelible performances among the raft of roles on offer, including Nicole Wiesner as the female academic who becomes the object of her male colleagues’ attention, Janet Ulrich Brooks as a baroness turned book publisher who unexpectedly bridges disparate chapters, and Eric Lynch as the American journalist in part three (which is also the most dramaturgically whole and dramatically inventive, with cleverly interspersed filmed interludes). Other actors feel underused, but the sheer logistical achievement is undeniable, and the multiple intermissions help ease the jarringness of the storytelling shifts.
One of the themes of 2666 the novel is arguably the futility of trying to understand art’s intent. Despite its occasional missteps, 2666 the play can be read as a tribute to the effort to figure art out.
Goodman Theatre. By Roberto Bolaño. Adapted and directed by Robert Falls and Seth Bockley. With ensemble cast. Running time: 5hrs 30mins; three intermissions.
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