F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic American novel is a good read, and one which still has relevance today. Elevator Repair Service has chosen not to adapt the novel for the stage, but to instead perform every word—the script must look like the book with a lot of stage directions. It's much like a live version of a book on tape crossed with a flash mob—the show is a group of office workers who, armed with a well-worn copy of the novel, engage in a spontaneous act of literature.
An endeavor like this depends entirely on the ability of the actors to pull it off, and while Shepherd is just terrific as Nick—particularly at the end, where his weary office worker becomes indistinguishable from world-weary Nick—not everyone is quite as good. At one point, Susie Sokol, who plays Nick's girlfriend, Jordan, takes the book from Nick and begins reading. (Nick is silently appalled until she reaches the words, "Jordan said.") But Sokol is genuinely reading aloud, not responding to the meaning of the words or pausing to let their poetry sink in. Sokol also has some difficulty, as Jordan herself, convincingly pulling off the language of the Roaring Twenties. In contrast, Victoria Vazquez is spot-on as Daisy—who doesn't appear in as many scenes as you might think, but has that old-money charisma turned up to full blast when she does. Jim Fletcher is perfection as Gatsby; when he calls Nick "Old Sport," it seems the most natural thing in the world. And it is in the descriptions of Gatsby that Elevator Repair Service's decision to perform the novel in its entirety makes the most sense. Fitzgerald's description of Gatsby's powerful smile is glorious; and no mere act of smiling by an actor could come close to it. But by having Nick, who is on the receiving end of the smile, describe it, it becomes brilliantly theatrical, as Nick isn't merely reading Fitzgerald's words, but simultaneously conveying the effect the smile has on him, and commenting on it.
Also worthy of mention is Mark Barton's ever-changing lighting design, and Ben Williams's sound design. Williams is particularly noteworthy, in that he spends the great bulk of the play on stage, working the sound board from an unobtrusive corner of the office, yet also steps out from behind the board to play a handful of characters. The sound design also not-so-subtly tells you where you are in the progression from office workers to Gatsby characters. At first, when Shepherd starts reading aloud while others are working around him, Williams's sound design gives you urban background noises; as the story progresses out to Long Island, the sound design ever-so-slowly transitions to suburbia, until, finally, the only things you hear are the sounds Fitzgerald would have wanted you to hear.
While the sounds fully change, the set never does—we are always aware that we're in a depressingly dumpy office environment, in which office furniture doubles up as whatever the story requires. The whole enterprise requires a great deal of cleverness—and the production frequently earns laughs for the way necessary items manage to appear. Laughs also come based on the choices the company has made to act out certain things in advance of their appearance in the text, and others after. Thus, a conversation might stall for a second as the actors stare at each other until a line comes, and Nick adds, "Said Tom, after a moment."
This is not a short play. (It runs about eight hours, including two intermissions and a dinner break.) Nor is it a particularly easy one to get into, while, when considered as a fraction of the whole, the time it takes until the office workers actually meld into the story is not particularly big, in actual minutes and hours, it's a good deal of time. The couple to my right gave up on the piece and never returned from the dinner break. But the rest of us, who stayed to the end, received a beautifully effective payoff, in the company's delivery of final pages of the book.
The production's length may invite comparisons with Nicholas Nickleby, but I think a better parallel might be Patrick Stewart's one-man A Christmas Carol, as in the latter, like Gatz, it is the original text that is ultimately the star of the piece.
Gatz runs through December 9, 2012 at REDCAT. For tickets and information see http://www.redcat.org.
REDCAT - Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, California Institute of the Arts - presents Elevator Repair Service's Gatz. Created and performed by Elevator Repair Service. Text: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Director John Collins; Associate Director Steve Bodow; Producer Ariana Smart Truman; Production Stage Manager Sarah Hughes; Set Designer Louisa Thompson; Costume Designer Colleen Werthmann; Lighting Designer Mark Barton; Sound Designer Ben Williams; Production Manager B. D. White; Sound Engineer Jason Sebastian; Associate Production Manager Adam Shive; Associate Producer Lindsay Hockaday.