One of the great perks of being a kid is that people read to you. I still miss it. That may be part of why I was so enchanted by "Gatz," currently playing 9 performances at the Redcat at Disney Hall. The theater production, put together by the New York-based avant-garde troupe called Elevator Repair Service, brilliantly performs F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" by reading the entire novel onstage, incorporating every written word into the production. In doing so, it becomes so much more than the novel is, or than a play could be--I guess that's why the word transformative was invented.
I admit I was nervous before the show. But it was a nervous anticipation. Could I last seven hours (eight including a dinner break) in a not-that-comfortable chair listening to a whole novel? Within minutes I was swept away. If you're going to read a novel in one sitting, better make it a good one and in choosing "The Great Gatsby," ERS chose well.
I was awed by the beauty of the words, the way they sounded strung together, the images they painted. The staging was quirky and minimal. It allowed my imagination enough room to fill in the blanks, making the event participatory and thrilling. Like good theater should be, it was a very social experience: the intimate Redcat is a perfect venue — everyone knew from the start that we were all in it together and you could sense that excitement as we took our seats.
Set in a dingy office, the play begins with the narrator, Nick, played by Scott Shepherd, finding a copy of "The Great Gatsby" in a Rolodex on his desk. While waiting for an interminable reboot of his aging computer, he picks it up and starts reading. His bored colleagues gradually drift in and out of their workaday doldrums playing the characters so elegantly drawn by Fitzgerald. The seminal novel about the dreams and delusions of the young strivers of New York's upper and wannabe-upper class took flight onstage. The drab office was a perfect contrast to the life, both lofty and artificial, depicted in the book.
There are many surprises. First, it's funny — something unexpected from one of the great tragedies in American literature. But it's undeniable when hearing and seeing it onstage. Of course ERS has helped entertain with its inventive staging and visual touches. You feel you are witnessing something fresh and new. Great art often makes you see something familiar in a totally new way. Director John Collins said recently, "We knew we might fail, but it would be a worthwhile failure."
As Shepherd reads and the action takes place around him, the novel he holds becomes the most important character on the stage. In fact, when he leaves the book after Gatsby's murder and starts reciting the words by heart, it's somehow shocking to see him go on without the novel in hand.
It was exhilarating, exciting, hypnotic, poignant, heartfelt, intelligent and utterly charming theater. It lasted from afternoon 'til evening and it didn't make me tired. I laughed, I cried and felt everything in between.
When it was over, I was weirdly energized. I confess that somehow I had gone all these years without actually ever reading the novel, having started it a few days before I saw the show. After it was over, I couldn't wait to go home and finish it, relishing the thought of being immersed in the writing all over again.
Elevator Repair Service has been trying since 1999 to do a staging of "The Great Gatsby." Initially, it was not their intention to read the whole book onstage. But in trying to structure a play from the book, Collins and Shepherd said that every time they tried to extract something meaningful from the novel, it always seemed to diminish the work.
After years of wrestling with the book they decided the only way to do this was to read the novel it in its entirety. It took years to get permission from the estate to play in New York and Los Angeles, although it has been performed abroad intermittently since its Brussels premiere in 2006. Redcat finally succeeded in bringing it to its stage. It will run for 9 performances through December 9.
After seeing this production, I watched a trailer for the upcoming film of "The Great Gatsby" by Baz Luhrman, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey McGuire, Carey Mulligan and a cast of thousands. Multitudes of elaborately costumed extras leap off the screen, carousing in opulent locations featuring Gatsby's extravagant mansion lit up like a house on fire. It was a cacophony of excess. Nothing was left to the imagination and I'm sure no expense was spared. The clip only lasted two minutes, but I afterwards I thought "Now THAT was exhausting."
It was so much more satisfying to settle in for 7 hours of inventive storytelling, seated in a roomful of perfect strangers who had gathered together to share something unforgettable.
Photos of the production and of Scott Shepherd by Iris Schneider