BWW Review: Stageworks Theatre Presents THE GREAT GATSBY

It's sometimes tougher to play dead than alive. I once had to die onstage as the Ol' Cap'n' in Purlie and remain standing still--yes, the Cap'n' dies standing up--and stay in a single position, not appear to be breathing, for many minutes. I teach my students that they must remain focused at all times onstage, especially if they are lucky enough to be playing a stiff. "But what if we have a cold and have to sneeze?" a kid always seems to ask. "Then you must hold it in," I answer. "You can't do anything that will ruin the play. The audience has suspended its disbelief and, in the context of the show, believes that you're dead. And if they think, for instance, that Julius Caesar is really dead, and suddenly the corpse starts sneezing, then the play is ruined, right?"

I hope my students get to see Simon Levy's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY at Stageworks for a variety of reasons, one of the top ones being to see an actress in such a state of focus that she remains dead like a post-shower Janet Leigh in Psycho for 15 minutes or so. (And unlike Ms. Leigh, who had the help of editor George Tomasini, this actress had to remain dead on an actual stage in front of a live audience.)

Katrina Stevenson plays Myrtle, perhaps the most pathetic soul in THE GREAT GATSBY (so desperate for love, so trapped in her circumstances), and anyone who's read the book or seen one of the movie versions knows that Myrtle eventually gets hit by a car and killed. In this production, after the accident, Myrtle's body remains onstage for the duration of the show. It is never dragged off. And here's the kicker: She dies with her eyes hauntingly opened the whole time, staring straight at the audience. Unblinking, not breathing, for over fifteen minutes. You really believe there is a corpse onstage.

To Ms. Stevenson's credit, she plays the small, but important role of Myrtle quite well when she's alive, oozing with both despondency and sexuality. So I won't go so far as to mimic the famous Fanny Brice quote about Esther Williams: "Wet, she's a star. Dry, she ain't." So don't worry, Ms. Stevenson is splendid both dead and alive (so I won't need to write, "Dead, she's a star; alive, she ain't").

THE GREAT GATSBY at Stageworks has some dynamo performances (like Ms. Stevenson) and some that miss the mark. The show is exceedingly well-directed by Noelle Monroe, and it seems to fly by for the most part. But there's a problem with this: It's too darn fast at times, and sometimes it plays like a SparkNotes version of the classic novel. We miss the emotional toll, the stuff that drama is based on.

Also missing are plenty of the plot points and key symbols, the lack of which mar the script. For example, the iconic billboard in the Valley of Ashes for Dr. T.J. Eckleburg (bespectacled eyes staring straight ahead)--the eyes of God literally, judgmentally looking down at all the excess--is not there. (The line about God looking down at them is mentioned by Myrtle's husband, George, but the power of the image of that iconic billboard is sadly absent.) Also cut is the great "broken clock" scene, which is just so important (after his initial love affair with Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby's post-Daisy world seems to have literally stopped time). Sometimes I felt like I was watching a Greatest Hits of THE GREAT GATSBY rather than the real thing.

But several of the performances save the production. Most noteworthy is the relative newcomer to our local stages, Lauren Buglioli. I had the pleasure of seeing Ms. Buglioli in Cabaret last summer, and she was a spot-on Sally Bowles, full of decadence, denial and sheer cluelessness. She's just as strong as Daisy Buchanan. Ms. Buglioli is a force of nature onstage, and no matter how hard you try, you cannot take your eyes off her whenever she's onstage. She has that magic "it," the charisma that seems to change the molecules in the room. And the part of Daisy is difficult on the audience--she never really gets her rightful comeuppance--but Buglioli is so strong that at least we understand her motives. I hope other local theatre companies take notice of Bugiloli, because her freshness, her aggressive joie de vivre, needs to be seen on local stages as often as possible.

Nathan Jokela is near perfect as the Everyman narrator, Nick Carraway, and the marvelous Dahlia Legault as Jordan is the epitome of Roaring Twenties decadence. Pete Clapsis and Staci Sabarsky offer entertaining turns in a variety of parts, showing off their versatility. Jamie Jones physically towers over the rest of the cast as the unlikable racist Tom, Daisy's athletic husband. His deep, bass, at times bizarre foghorn voice reminds me of the odd pairing of Senator Bill Nelson and a drunk John Wayne.

R. James Faroute, as Gatsby, is hit and miss for me. No actor has ever wholly mastered this inaccessible part, not Redford, not DiCaprio. So Faroute is in good company. He's obviously a fine actor, and he and Buglioli's Daisy certainly create onstage sparks together. But it doesn't resonate, and this may be a problem with all of the versions of Fitzgerald's novel. Even Gatsby's death doesn't seem to carry the necessary weight. Yes, Gatsby is like a Flapper Era Wizard in The Wizard of Oz--all show, a man who builds a great myth (in Gatsby's case, because he's a lovelorn sad sack in search of his lost love, which is why he throws all of those outrageous parties, hoping she will eventually attend one of them). But what works on the page doesn't always connect on the stage. And that's the case here. The part is just too elusive to be totally engaging.

Matthew Frankel's George Wilson is more problematic. First of all, he seems too well shaven, too clean. Where's the dirt and black oil on his hands and overalls? Frankel is an imposing figure onstage, but we never get a sense of his character. I know it's hard to create something out of nothing--a lifeless soul like George, but we also need to see his total idealization of Myrtle. Sometimes it appears that the actor just seems to be saying lines, and it's mentioned that he sounds "like a slug," but his voice has no discernible quality to it, certainly not "slug-like." We never really sense the character's motivations, which makes his final actions ring hollow. I love what the director did with him staging-wise, however, by having him watch over Myrtle's dead body for a long period of time. That worked, even if other segments did not. (Judging from the night I saw it, Frankel also needs to learn the correct way to make the sign of the cross.)

Noelle Monroe's direction is taut and imaginative, and even the between-scene changes zoom by with zest and charm, giving us a musical tour of the Roaring Twenties. It's a beautifully directed work. And the triangle of death at the show's end, featuring the aforementioned open-eyed gaze of the dead Myrtle, is very well rendered. (And gutsy. Most directors would turn the Myrtle away from the audience or at least have her eyes closed. Not Ms. Monroe, and her risky move pays off both wonderfully and harrowingly.)

T.J. "Tandy" Ecenia's set brings Art Deco to life--the Age of Erte and Le Corbusier, Lalique and Lempicka. It's a relatively simple set, perfect for the intimate surroundings of the Stageworks theatre. It gives a suggestion of the era rather than ramming the Jazz Age down our throats.

Marilyn Gaspardo Bertch's costumes are right for the times, and Ryan Finzelber's lighting couldn't be better (I especially like the green glow on Gatsby at the beginning of the show and how it connects to the very final moment of the production). Last but never least, Karla Hartley's sound design and music choices (like "Just Wild for Harry") fit the show well.

But it's not enough. If you didn't know that THE GREAT GATSBY is one of the greatest American novels of the 20th Century, if not the greatest, then you sure wouldn't know it here. It's a novel that just never translates well, whether on the stage or on the screen. But several of the performances in this production are what I remember, what I take home with me, especially Ms. Buglioli. Watching her onstage, you want to re-title the show The Great Buglioli.

THE GREAT GATSBY runs at Stageworks until December 18th. For tickets, please call (813) 374-2416.

Related Articles View More Tampa/St. Petersburg Stories   Shows

From This Author Peter Nason