“Gatz,” the extraordinarily creative and intelligent combination of an oration and recreation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, “The Great Gatsby,” opened on February 13, 2020, at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater to well-deserved bravos and huzzahs.
The enactment was skillfully performed by members of New York City’s theater company, Elevator Repair Service (ERS), many of whom have presented the work to sold-out theaters in the United States and Europe since 2005. Complete with ERS’s sets and acting talent, and with director John Collins (also ERS’s artistic director) at its helm,“Gatz” landed in Berkeley with great aplomb and flair.
In “The Great Gatsby,” narrator Nick Carraway, a Midwesterner, recent Yale graduate and Wall Street bond salesman, relates how he rented a West Egg, Long Island summer cottage in 1922 next to the Gothic party mansion owned by the mysterious, enigmatic and newly wealthy Jay Gatsby (Jim Fletcher). Nick’s cousin, the beautiful, careless Daisy Buchanan (Annie McNamara), and her quick-tempered macho husband and fellow-Yalie, Tom (Robert M. Johanson) were living nearby. Daisy’s friend, amoral golfer Jordan Baker (Susie Sokol), becomes Nick’s love interest. Tom proudly introduces Nick to Tom’s slatternly mistress, Myrtle (Laurena Allan), who is married to sad-sack gas station owner, George Wilson (Frank Boyd). As the story builds tension, we learn that Gatsby and Daisy had been romantically entwined in the past and that Gatsby has never forgotten her. By the end of the summer, tragedy has befallen the group.
Based on ERS’s unique concept, “Gatz” begins in a shabby office where a bored office worker named Nick (exceptional Scott Shepherd) is casually reading out loud from a worn copy of “The Great Gatsby” while he waits for his computer to be fixed. Nick recites Nick Caraway’s narrative passages, while, at first, the other office workers come and go in the background. But gradually, and as Nick becomes more intrigued with the novel, the staff members morph into the other characters in the book and perform their roles when they appear or are quoted in the text.
“Gatz’s” set of the dilapidated office never changes, but as the play progresses, it seems subtly modified. With the adroit use of sound effects (Ben Williams, who operates from a side of the stage and acts a few lines), lighting (Mark Barton), and with some ingenious physical props, the office seems to recede as the audience’s imagination takes over. For the outdoor Long Island scenes, we may hear birds or crickets; at the gas station, we hear traffic. In one drunken party scene, the actors toss pieces of office paper around as if to mimic their sloppy inebriated state.
You may have heard that “Gatz” is long. Yes, “Gatz” is long. Each performance is approximately six hours, divided by a two-hour dinner break, with each half having two 15-minute intermissions. Out of concern for the length of the play, the outfit I wore to the opening was what I might wear on a coach flight to JFK. But the time seemed to go by relatively quickly, as I became mesmerized by the creativity of the drama and Fitzgerald’s compellingly perceptive and skilled writing. And having seen “Gatz,” I now understand what was lacking in the movie adaptations and why ERS decided that it couldn’t shorten the novel in its production. For what gives critical perspective and depth of meaning to “Gatz”is Nick’s full narrative, with his viewpoint, his observations, and the sad education he gained during his summer on West Egg.
This is a very short run. Try to get tickets soonest.
By Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2020 All Rights Reserved