It 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.
Shepherd plays an office drone who, while frustratingly trying to get his computer to work amidst his low-rent, dull, generic office surroundings, picks up a copy of The Great Gatsby and starts reading it aloud- every page, every sentence. And he does this for the first half hour of what is essentially the first of four acts. His co-workers start coming in, and they are familiar office types- the busybody office manager, the cocky building superintendent, the aloof first-line supervisor, the laidback IT guy, that random person who shows up everyday but you never really know what she does, the Big Boss, but he keeps on reading, and reading. Until his co-workers suddenly start becoming the characters in Fitzgerald’s novel, and they’re playing out the scenes of grandeur and wealth, of Long Island mansions, Jazz Age flappers and expensive roadsters that Fitzgerald so articulately and powerfully paints, within the office setting, wearing their own drab office clothes, using office supplies, tables, chairs, typewriters, boxes, folders, as props. And the brilliance of Gatz is that you believe them and are transported. It’s like reading the novel, but with a twist- you visualize the scenes in your head, and these scenes are then overlaid with the performance that you are actually watching, and your imagination co-mingles them and transforms them, from seemingly incongruous and disconnected, to apt metaphors. It’s indescribable and stupefying, but also exhilarating. The party that Tom Buchanan’s mistress Myrtle throws for assorted Manhattan social climbers is played as a drunken, rowdy office party. The final confrontation at the Plaza Hotel suite between Gatsby and Tom and Daisy is portrayed as a late afternoon shoot-the-breeze office tableau.
Part of the reason for this transformative experience is the beauty and power of Fitzgerald’s language. These are dialogue and descriptions straight from the book, untarnished by any filter imposed by an adaptor, and they are vivid and lively in themselves. Another important driver is the direction- ERS founder John Collins directs the play tautly, with every movement, lighting effect, onstage grouping, aimed to evoke Fitzgerald’s world. Nothing is superfluous or unnecessary. A large contributor to the experience is the brilliant sound design. Sound designer Ben Williams is actually onstage throughout the play, working with his sound effects board, and also performing several minor parts such as Michaelis, the witness to Myrtle Wilson’s accidental death. Sound is an integral part of every scene. You hear Fitzgerald’s words clarified and amplified by a variety of sound effects, whether they’re cars honking from outside the office, or the big band jazz music of the novel’s setting. The sound effects are so extraordinarily designed, that you don’t notice at all that the urban sounds of the office setting such as traffic and street noises have given way to the birds chirping or the leaves rustling in West Egg, Long Island, the setting for most of the novel. Another important element is the acting – the ensemble is exceptional, with no weak link amongst them. And they make terrific sense of the device of having the office characters take on the Gatsby characters. Gary Wilmes as the arrogant building guy extraordinarily paints the arrogance, insecurity-driven bravado, and bigotry and status-consciousness that the Tom Buchanan character possesses. It makes perfect sense that Jim Fletcher as the inscrutable, socially awkward, unemotional office Big Boss (don’t we know many bosses like those?) surfaces those same characteristics in Jay Gatsby. Aaron Landsman as the bumbling, laidback, passive-aggressive IT guy perfectly matches George Wilson’s persona. And Stacy Sokol, as the office chick who doesn’t really do anything but read magazines, is amazingly appropriate as the “lady golfer” Jordan (who basically doesn’t do anything too but play golf, and read magazines).
And then there’s Scott Shepherd. Shepherd is top dog of New York experimental theater actors, having played lead roles in many ERS and Wooster Group productions, and it’s a rare treat to see his masterful work. He reads the book cover-to-cover, yes, but also simultaneously paints a fully-fleshed out, dazzlingly multi-dimensional take on Nick Carroway. He is aloof, incredulous, ambivalent, loyal, disillusioned, everything that Fitzgerald writes Nick to be, but Shepherd communicates these characteristics through gestures, inflections, quick looks at the other characters, for that is all he can do, because he is reading a book in his hand. But it works and it enthralls. And when he finally puts down the book, and performs the last 45 minutes, the last three chapters of the novel, from memory, you are dumbfounded and catapulted into the stratosphere (he supposedly has memorized the entire book). His delivery of Nick’s final monologue on leaving the materialistic East and returning to the still-values-oriented Midwest is devastating.
Gatz was a great, must-see, once-in-a-lifetime production, a privilege that the Chicago audience on Friday night (there were two other performances over the weekend) didn’t squander. Most of the audience stayed through the entire seven and a half hours (there were some empty seats after the dinner break, not a lot, which was impressive). The audience reacted at Fitzgerald’s dry humor, which ERS marvellously drew out from the text, enthusiastically. But they were also quiet and subdued during Nick’s final monologue. And we all rose to our feet, allowing the cast to take close to ten curtain calls, at the end of the play, knowing that the past seven and a half hours were indelible and unrepeatable.
Chris Jones, over at the Chicago Tribune, can’t stop writing about Gatz. The production moves to EMPAC in Troy, New York, one of the major showcases of experimental art in the country later this month, and then undertakes an Australia tour in May 2009.