Put that emoji down please. Don’t even think about it. Or, god forbid, that cute, but kind-of creepy animated GIF.
We are about to head into the world of long-form, all the while thrashing 140-character limitations to smithereens.
This epic experimental theater event at Berkeley Rep is, in some ways, the anti-Instagram for our times; doing away with short, mind numbing snapshots of could-be life perfection and instead giving us a raw, unapologetic staging of an American classic that is…
… six (!) hours long.
Unfiltered as they come. Call it the non-adaptation adaptation.
To put that epic length in perspective, you could watch Godfather Part 1 and Part 2 in about the same amount of time. If you’ve got the right connections, you could watch Hamilton twice in a row. Or, possibly my favorite, you could binge watch the entire first season of Stranger Things (again).
Word by word, page by page, in Gatz the audience is invited to experience what might be the most creative and interesting staging of an audiobook imaginable. In this case, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Over the course of six hours (plus four intermissions), actors literally read and perform the entire novel.
As the play opens narrator Nick (Scott Shepherd) finds a tattered copy of the novel in his office desk while waiting — eternally — for his buggy desktop PC to boot. Curiosity prompts him to flip the cover and to start reading.
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
And so it begins.
As the actor reads aloud from and flips the first few pages of “The Great Gatsby” you can’t help but notice the chunk of unread pages yet remaining from the tattered book sitting in his hands. Phew, we’re five minutes in you think, sitting here in the gorgeous Roda Theatre in Berkeley. Okay, so about six more hours to go. This is going to be a long ride.
Phew, we’re five minutes in you think, sitting here in the gorgeous Roda Theatre in Berkeley. Okay, so about six more hours to go. This is going to be a long ride.
Early on the trick is conspicuous. We’re sitting in a theater watching actors read aloud from a classic novel. Yes, it’s inventive, but it’s also bit of a party trick and early on I found it hard not to just sit there scrutinizing the various devices used by the actors to perform some of the dialog as Scott Shepherd continued to read, word-for-word while occasionally taking breaks to tend to busy office work of some kind or another.
After the first break, as the troupe headed into Chapters 4-5 all that awareness and analysis faded. Give it a chance, and soon you find yourself immersed in this magical, quirky, gin-soaked world. Over-the-top parties. Dancing. Whimsical stories. The ever mysterious Jay Gatsby (Jim Fletcher). An incessantly ringing telephone (cordless?). And of course that uncooperative PC, now being tended to in the background by an impatient IT staffer.
Then there’s that guy sitting house left at a desk, sporadically working on a MacBook.
Is that a mixing board sitting next to his laptop? Why yes, it is I eventually realize after much curious and distant analysis.
It dawned on me that this character is actually a part of the show (the talented sound-designer/actor Ben Jalosa Williams), sitting on stage actually mixing the (incredible) sound effects, background music and ambient noises that conspire to transport us to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s jazz age of the early 1900’s. I’ve never seen something like that before, even after covering SF Bay Area theater for so many years here on Stark Insider. Sound mixing usually happens elsewhere, out of sight. Here, as if we spliced open our virtual imaginations while reading the Gatsby novel itself, we’re witness to various creative machinations. How we might, for instance, even assemble its interpretation — adding sound cues, fading in and out of semi-consciousness, alternatively feeling like the narrator himself mingling with Jay Gatsby only to soon realize we’re simply reading an old book on a train on the way to work, surrounded by anonymous people perhaps doing exactly the same.
The Great Gatsby:
Did you know?
- “The Great Gatsby” is a 1925 novel written by American author F. Scott Fitzgerald.
- Receiving mixed reviews and selling poorly, the novel experienced a revival during World War II and now is widely considered to be a literary classic.
- A film adaptation in 2013 by Baz Lurmann stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby.
- Multiple TV adaptations have been aired over the years including in 1955, 1958 and 2000.
- “The green light that shines at the end of the dock of Daisy’s house across the Sound from Gatsby’s house is frequently mentioned in the background of the plot. It has variously been interpreted as a symbol of Gatsby’s longing for Daisy and, more broadly, of the American dream.”
Source: Wikipedia, imdb
After a two-hour dinner break, darkness fell over Berkeley as we headed back to Addison Street for the second half of the show.
Things then, as most who know “The Great Gatsby,” turn heavy.
The American Dream? Maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald knew something about indiscriminately chasing ideals some one hundred years earlier.
At this point the performances really rip. Scott Shepherd as the aforementioned narrator is astonishing. Here’s a voice you could — and will — listen to all day long. Not only that, he slips with shocking ease into various personas, employing diverse accents, before once again transforming into a meager office worker still waiting for a computer repair. During the last half hour, in particular, Shepherd shines supreme.
Jim Fletcher as Jay Gatsby is towering and stoic. An anchor among the chaos, only to fail forward — in a pink suit no less — in the most tragic way possible.
Elevator Repair Service’s supporting cast is equally superb. Annie McNamara as Daisy. Robert M. Johanson as Tom. Maggie Hoffman as Lucille. And all the way through. The deftness of the blocking, lighting, timing (plenty of opportunity available for beautiful beats and pregnant pauses), set, costumes are evidence of a well-oiled machine, a group of performers, artists and staff at the top of their respective games.
Gatz Running Times
Each performance of Gatz runs approximately 6 hours, plus two 15-minute intermissions and a 2-hour dinner break.
Chapters 1–3: 2 hours
Intermission: 15 minutes
Chapters 4–5: 1 hour and 10 minutes
Dinner break: 2 hours
Chapters 6–7: 1 hour and 25 minutes
Intermission: 15 minutes
Chapters 7–9: 1 hour and 25 minutes
Director John Collins says they started working on “The Great Gatsby” in 1999. Originally the idea wasn’t to stage the entire book. But, as he notes in the Gatz program, the “prose is so delicately and expertly constructed that even the omission of a single adjective is rhythmically disappointing.”
To have the audacity to conceive such a monumental project only to see it come to fruition successfully so many years later must be a rewarding feeling for Collins and the team.
After a lengthy gestation period, Gatz premiered to praise in 2006 in Brussels. From there, and with various licensing challenges eventually resolved, the show made its way to New York and London and to across more than 25 venues in the US, and now to the Roda stage at the Berkeley Rep.
Speaking of the Rep, it’s worth pointing out that this production comes under the leadership of Johanna Pfaelzer who is guiding the storied theater’s 2019-2020 season as its new artistic director. Based on Gatz, and upcoming productions, it would seem the Berkeley Rep is in good hands.
Based on Gatz, and upcoming productions, it would seem the Berkeley Rep is in good hands.
I remember seeing The Great Game: Afghanistan at Berkeley Rep about ten years ago. That too was a multi-part epic that challenged, and required patience. Whereas that play was a mash-up of scripts and shorts, Gatz is undeniably pure — a famous writer’s work being performed by a tenured, exemplary theater group.
This is, no doubt, hardcore theater. In the ultimate test, I was impressed that at the end of the evening very few had bailed. Why would they? The theater remained packed and rapt.