BWW Review: GATZ at Berkeley Rep Transforms the Great American Novel into a Singular Theatrical Experience
"In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had." Thus famously begins both F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "The Great Gatsby" and its stage incarnation "Gatz" in the Elevator Repair Service (ERS) production currently running at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Wait, you mean Fitzgerald was addressing the notion of privilege way back in 1925? Yes, indeedy! In fact, so much of his novel resonates so deeply with our current state that it's a perfect time to revisit this classic. Which is exactly and literally what ERS is doing here. The text of "Gatz" consists of every word in the novel and nothing more. So, yes, that means you're in for roughly six hours (plus 2 intermissions and a welcome dinner break) of Fitzgeraldian theatrical experience. If those last two sentences intrigue you at all, I highly recommend you take the ride.
"Gatz" takes place within the confines of the dreary office of a nameless, faceless company, perhaps in a crumbling strip mall somewhere in the middle America of a few decades ago. It's the kind of soul-sucking environment where employees show up each morning with takeout coffee in hand and hunker down like worker bees in front of their oversized computers until it's time to go home. When one of them can't get his computer to boot up (think back to the not-so-halcyon days of MS-DOS!), he waits in vain for the IT guy to fix his problem. He eventually spies a dog-eared copy of "The Great Gatsby" amidst his cluttered workspace and begins to read it aloud. This office drudge becomes our narrator and gradually assumes the character of Nick. Fellow employees go through the motions of clerical work until they, too, morph into characters from the novel, occasionally reverting back into employee mode, clicking away at keyboards, sorting mail, meeting with the boss in hushed voices that the audience can't decipher.
This literal description of the stage action can't possibly convey the sleight of hand that ERS works here. Over the course of six hours, they make you believe this dingy office is really Gatsby's mansion or George Wilson's auto repair shop or a Long Island highway. This conjuring is accomplished not by any change of scenery (late in the proceedings, when a lone Venetian blind is lowered it feels like a cataclysmic event!), but just with lighting, sound, some indelible performances and always, always the elegiac beauty of Fitzgerald's words. The story is also frequently leavened with bursts of humor, sometimes heightened a bit more than necessary, perhaps in an effort to keep the audience engaged over the ample running time.
While it is Fitzgerald's words that draw you in (and are probably the reason you came in the first place), it is the physical production that transforms the book into a haunting theater piece. Louisa Thompson's set is an artwork in itself. Its grey walls, patches of faux-wood paneling, worn brown linoleum, and grungy windows into a supervisor's back office and a bleak interior corridor speak of a workplace that is at once soul-sucking and big-brotherish. There are endless telling details like the occasional, mismatched floor tile, the hodgepodge of outdated desks and chairs suggesting a sort of furniture graveyard, or a random pair of sneakers tucked amidst the tattered Bankers Boxes on the ranks of steel shelving. Mark Barton's deceptively simple lighting and Ben Williams' soundscape work in tandem to take us to all manner of locations and times of day. It is uncanny the way they can make an office alcove suddenly transform into the porch of the Buchanan's house. Or how by simply re-positioning a desk clock on a gun-metal grey table, it magically becomes the hood ornament of Gatsby's Rolls Royce.
There are too many actors - thirteen in all - to give each one their due here, but all have some beautiful moments under John Collins' sensitive and inventive direction. Many have been with the show for years, so the performances have a lived-in feel. To single out just a few, Vin Knight is a delight as Chester and a variety of other, often sodden gentlemen of a certain age. Laurena Allan is affecting as the tragic and dissolute good-time girl Myrtle. Frank Boyd is alternately heart-rending and subtly menacing in his dual roles as Myrtle's husband George and the office IT guy.
The whole affair, however, could not begin to work without the essential contribution of Scott Shepherd as Nick. The role requires a herculean effort since he's the one who takes us on the journey and has to maintain our attention for its duration. From the moment he arrives in the office, he is instantly recognizable as that co-worker who is pleasant enough, but nobody really knows what he does or has the slightest sense of his inner life. In other words, a perfect doppelganger for Nick Carraway. Throughout the play, Shepherd alternates between the character of Nick in real time, Nick as narrator of the book, and office drone. He has the vast majority of lines in the play and virtually never leaves the stage. Just as a matter of stamina, it's quite an accomplishment, but Shepherd also manages to be consistently alive to the moment, culminating in the final hour which is largely his alone. I've never seen a performance quite like it, and I can't imagine that I'll see a better one all year.
I readily admit "Gatz" will not be everyone's jam. If you prefer plays that are succinct, simple and punchy, by all means avoid this one like the plague. If, on the other hand, you're drawn to works of moral probity, relish the chance to fully immerse yourself in a complex work of art, are up for a unique cultural experience and/or are a big Fitzgerald fan, you should rush to get tickets before "Gatz" ends its too-brief run on March 1st. Better yet, invite along a friend or three and go out for drinks afterward to process what you've just experienced - it's that kind of show. Major props to Berkeley Rep for bringing this singular theatrical event to the Bay Area!
"Gatz" runs through Sunday March 1st at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley, CA. All performances start at 2:00pm. For tickets and additional information, visit www.berkeleyrep.org or call 510-647-2949.