Catapulted into the Stratosphere

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gatz-ers.jpgIt goes without saying that I see a lot of really good theater (of course I see a lot of stinkers too, but that comes with the territory of being a theater aficionado). But it’s a rare, blessed night (or afternoon, for matinees) that I actually see great theater – great with a capital G, so great that I get shivers up my spine, I feel zapped by an indescribable electromagnetic force, I am elevated, enthralled, transformed, enveloped in transcendence. It happened last year at August: Osage County here in Chicago and at Ivo Von Hove’s The Misanthrope in New York. It happened several weeks ago at the Chicago Shakespeare with Sean Graney’s audacious version of Edward II. And it happened again last Friday night at the conclusion of the monumentally epic, hypnotic, seven and a half hour (including a dinner break and two intermissions) production of Gatz, mounted at the MCA Stage by the Elevator Repair Service (ERS), the acclaimed New York-based experimental theater company. But unlike the other three productions, I was initially apprehensive about attending Gatz- it was going to be the longest-running play I would have seen in my theatergoing life (yep, I missed Edward Hall’s five and a half hour Rose Rage at Chicago Shakespeare a couple of years ago, and ahem, I’m too young to actually have seen Trevor Nunn’s legendary eight and a half hour The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby on Broadway in the very early 1980s). Eight hours in the theater? That’s a workday of powerpoint presentation decks, or a spa day, or a day of four movies seen back to back. It’s a huge commitment, not only of time, but also of mental and physical focus. The play hinged on a complete reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel, The Great Gatsby. Hmmm. Would I actually be able to sit through the entire play-cum-reading, or would I tarnish my arts and culture vulture stripes by needing to leave at the dinner break? Will Gatz be able to hold my attention, sustain my engagement through all those hours, or would the whole experience feel interminable and gruelling, like hand-stitching an elaborate Tibetan yak headdress? Would this be another pointless exercise in experimental theater? At 10:48 pm, during the curtain call on Friday night, approximately seven hours and thirty eight minutes from the time the houselights dimmed and Scott Shepherd, the lead actor, strolled on stage, I decided that I could have spent another seven hours with this play, these actors, this audience. Gatz renews one’s faith in the heights that theater, art, imagination, and creativity can scale. It also reinforces the belief that an intelligent and cosmopolitan theater audience, such as the one we have in Chicago, will embrace theater that is innovative, challenging, exhausting, but ultimately rewarding and memorable.

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