Director Daniel Fish’s stage version of the Don DeLillo novel White Noise is more a visual and auditory collage than what we would commonly recognize as a play. Fish’s loose adaptation removes all characters aside from Jack Gladney (DeLillo’s first person narrator, a professor of Hitler Studies at a fictional college) and pares the text down to a series of lists – long paragraphs of nouns that describe the mid-80s societal mise-en-scene. Fish’s piece is not so much a faithful translation to the new medium as a tapestry of the book’s language, an encapsulation of its propulsive stack of words.
It would be impossible to understand what’s happening in Fish’s staging if you aren’t familiar with the source material, though. I re-read it in the days preceding, but still found myself struggling to pick up where we were in the trajectory of the novel. It’s not that DeLillo’s book is big on plot; he, too, is more concerned with painting his modern era in text and highlighting the buffoonery of intellectualism and existentialism than writing an old-fashioned potboiler. But the three sections of DeLillo’s novel do start one place and go someplace else in a way that Fish’s adaptation does not.
The first section of DeLillo’s book is expository: we meet Jack, his much younger wife, Babette, and the children they have together and from previous relationships. The second section concerns a toxic black cloud that appears over the town and forces the family (and everyone around them) into quarantine. Jack is contaminated by the cloud while pumping gas and he both deals with and ignores its effects through the remainder of the book. The third section involves the discovery of Babette’s Dylar tablets, a drug meant to stall the fear of death, and the sussing out of why she has them, how she got them (they’re not on the market), and what Jack will do to Babette’s supplier. None of this really happens in the play, though.
Fish funnels it all into a solo performance. Actor Bruce McKenzie embodies the poetic distillation of DeLillo’s text more than he is “playing” Jack Gladney. He is not billed as Gladney in the program, but he is of a similar age and is dressed as a mid-80s university professional in khaki pants with a button down and tie designed by Doey Lüthi. McKenzie’s voice remains mostly neutral as he extolls the endless, tenuously connected lists of nouns and adjectives. It quickly becomes numbing, its own kind of white noise. I found it difficult to pay attention because his dulcet tones had a lullaby effect on my consciousness. With no differentiation from one word to the next, it was hard to discern what was important and what wasn’t. Perhaps this is Fish’s point: a communal weariness with life.
McKenzie sits in a giant circle cut out of flat wood that fills the fourth wall of the proscenium. He hovers above the floor, but not quite at the ceiling. Andrew Liberman’s set gives McKenzie space to move back and forth within this circle. Its claustophic nature evokes a sewer pipe or a bomb shelter, somewhere safe during a catastrophe. McKenzie speaks into a handheld microphone that sound designer Eric Sluyter blends with a live score performed and composed by Bobby Previte. Previte’s music is cinematic in that it gives shape to the almost monotone recitation by McKenzie. The spoken word hovers around the constantly mutating music at least telling us a little bit about what’s going on.
The video design by Jim Findlay is really the focal point of Fish’s production. Findlay’s video fills the entire wall around and even inside McKenzie’s circle. McKenzie will, at times, close a door or pull a curtain inside his tunnel to allow the breadth of Findlay’s images to fill the entire proscenium unimpeded. There are also times when the giant gaping hole in the center of the image is intentional, and works in with the larger images projected around it.
This production originated in Germany and a substantial portion of the projected images concern a group of German schoolchildren that both open the show (by stating their names and then standing in an awkward silence before the camera cuts away) and end it (their inert bodies kaleidoscope around each other forming, terrifyingly, swastikas). Though Jack Gladney created the Hitler Studies department at his made-up college, he does not speak German, and a portion of the book concerns his lessons in the language with a tutor. Fish echoes this with a long passage where McKenzie says a word in English and a German child projected at least five times larger than life repeats the word in German.
The idea of learning and teaching is prevalent in the videography. At about the midway point, the children start to appear with wounds and blood on their faces. As the show progresses and we move through the sections about toxic pollution and fear of death, a makeup artist’s hands appear in the frame, applying these wounds, stippling the blood around the brows. It’s a metatheatrical depiction of the destruction of youth. Children now have to live with a constant threat of violence: from guns and sexual assault, from chemical and environmental destruction – all of which could rob them of a future.
There’s a particularly harrowing image of a girl staring blankly with a huge bullet hole in her forehead, blood seeping down into her eye. The modernity of DeLillo’s book has lead us into this future, where the things he talks about (mass consumerism, a disconnection between people, climate disasters, etc.) are amplified beyond any sense of his imaging. As the cloud arrives in Gladney’s timeline, Fish has a puff of smoke fill the circle where McKenzie stands. The video and the soundscape stop for a second and let it slide out in a blue-white chill of a light by Stacey Derosier. The toxic cloud envelops McKenzie/Gladney and rolls out at us and we have no choice but to receive it.
I got all of this from Fish’s production because I had refreshed myself on the book’s style, tone, and events right before seeing it. I’m not convinced that the beauty of its theatricality or the impact of Findlay’s film images would register at all if I hadn’t. It’s apparent that Fish is a deep thinker from his stellar revival of Oklahoma! currently on Broadway and from this filtration of DeLillo’s points without his plot, I’m just not convinced that the gruesomeness of the images is enough to jolt us from the desensitizing blankness of the adaptation’s text. DeLillo’s novel is quick and witty, Fish’s staging is passive and drifting. There is room for the two to overlap, but the stage version is too obtuse to let us into the center of that Venn diagram.