Also see Nancy's review of In the Heights
Before the show, we spot Michaelis (Ben Williams, the gifted sound designer-operator who remains onstage for the entire production) sitting toward the edge of a dingy office where the décor and the technology have been stale for years. Louisa Thompson's set might convince you of an unexplainable return to the 1980s. Fortunately, Michaelis's omnipresence, coupled with various theatrical conventions during the show, reminds the audience that we are in a theater. This is a comforting realization after getting lost in wackiness that ensues here.
Soon after the curtain time, Nick (Scott Shepherd) arrives to find that his computer bit the dust. Unable to begin the workday routine, he unearths a worn paperback edition of The Great Gatsby and begins to read aloud. It's up for interpretation whether his words are audible to coworkers or only to those of us within his mind. But read aloud he does, for days.
Shepherd's familiar, pleasant voice draws us in to rediscover a story that most left behind in high school. The talented performer's Nick is initially reluctant, but soon becomes enthralled with this literary journey. Just when it seems like the production becomes little more than a themed book reading, Nick's office matesand the office itselfbegin to morph into the story escaping from the page. With a loud crash and some coincidental dialogue, Nick's imagined world slowly replaces reality. This fantasy becomes a well-choreographed retelling of a quintessential story about chasing the American Dream, performed by coworkers who may have forgotten their own dreams in such a robotic corporate culture.
Directed with care by ERS founder John Collins, the seasoned 13-member Gatz ensemble employs a myriad of well-placed office supplies and clever performance styles to bring scenes to life in the usually dull location. Their stripped-down approach joins a number of recent productions where directors examine masterpieces within a new environment. These include the John Doyle-directed Sweeney Todd, set within the mind of a psychiatric hospital patient, and Michael Mayer's updated Spring Awakening, which introduced rock microphones pulled out of suit coat pockets into a period piece about sexually-repressed German teenagers.
The union of The Great Gatsby's decadent period with a contemporary American office is enlightening. The tragic Jay Gatsby seeks to attain the social and financial status required to find ultimate personal satisfaction. His motivation parallels the paper pushers' aspirations, which force a daily return to this colorless office that will make their dreams come trueif they work hard enough and long enough.
The American Dream mentality can desensitize workers to the everyday experience they must endure to eventually grasp the next rung on a very shaky corporate ladder. It is Nick's newfound imagination that helps him survive the monotony of reality and rediscover his humanity. Gatz asks: what will you lose by opening a book? Or attending a play, albeit a very long one? It might be worth the effort.
Gatz runs through February 7 at Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge. For tickets and information, visit the A.R.T. box office, call 617-547-8300, or purchase online at www.americanrepertorytheater.org.
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