Borrowing established stories and adapting them for the stage is hardly unusual in today’s theater culture, where original writing is hard to find. It is rare, then, when a production based on another work manages to feel exciting. Perhaps even more remarkable is that the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) and Elevator Repair Service (ERS) achieve this freshness with one of the most well known American novels: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
In “Gatz,” a six-hour epic told in two parts at the A.R.T. through February 7, ERS attempts to capture the resonant power of “Gatsby.” The company takes a curious approach: “Gatz” is a performance that consists almost entirely of dialogue, comprised only of the text of the novel. Though the production uses design elements effectively to bring Fitzgerald’s work to life, most of the actors’ performances are unconvincing and flat, a regretful detail that hinders an otherwise brilliant concept.
The reader (Scott Shepherd), who transforms from an everyman office drone into “Gatsby” narrator Nick Carraway, casually begins reading the book on the pretext of waiting for his ancient, uncooperative computer to start up. Despite receiving odd looks from fellow employees, he continues reciting the text aloud. Soon, the play subtly shifts, and each one of the nobody office workers is cast in a role, drafted into the reader’s imaginary Fitzgeraldian world, where the romance, humor, and brutality of “Gatsby” are all poignantly real.
The choice to retain every last syllable of Fitzgerald’s work is a bold one, but it pays off. Rather than becoming a sort of story time for adults, “Gatz” instead challenges the audience to reconsider familiar prose by framing it in a novel context.
Suddenly, Nick’s wry observations are funny. Often relegated to high school English reading lists, “Gatsby” has always been popular—but not necessarily understood. What is inevitably lost in the commotion of the American dream, unrequited love, and two tragic deaths is Fitzgerald’s humor. Shepherd manages to draw out the wit and sarcasm of the narrator, capitalizing on dramatic pauses and pointed glances at the audience. As he reads Fitzgerald’s exposition aloud, his earnest and deadpan drawl meshes well with the reflective musings of Midwesterner Nick, and Shepherd is instantly likeable—a necessary quality for an actor who will be speaking nearly non-stop for six hours.
Where Nick is a detached observer in the novel, Shepherd’s narrator is the centerpiece of the production. Although Shepherd has the novel memorized, his intentionally stilted delivery—as if he really is reading “Gatsby” out loud for the first time—never betrays this feat until the end of the second half, in which he goes off-book for nearly an hour.
What is most remarkable about Shepherd, however, is not his memory, but his ability to evoke such complex emotion—he never forgets his performance in the mass of complicated text he must deliver. Even when his personality flashes from Nick to office worker, his seemingly inconsequential gestures are nuanced and deliberate. Shepherd looks continuously at a clock throughout the play, a tic that reveals its portentous significance when Nick recounts the timeline of Gatsby’s death. Shepherd’s skillful handling of his role is an accomplishment that dwarfs the rest of the company by comparison.
Victoria Vazquez’s Daisy is passable and unmemorable. Vazquez never quite embodies the calculated superficiality of Daisy, and instead appears artificially blank. Her attempt to capture the manipulative schoolgirl tendencies that make Daisy so dangerous and so repulsive seems immature.
Indeed, the tension between Vasquez and Jim Fletcher, who has a commanding, albeit one-dimensional presence as Gatsby, is similarly underdeveloped—a fact most evident in a critical scene when all the major characters are gathered together in a hotel room, and Tom Buchanan (Gary Wilmes) finally realizes that Daisy loves Gatsby. The actors are helped tremendously by smart blocking—Jordan Baker and Nick, like spectators, face a triangle formed by the aforementioned trio—yet Vasquez fails to translate her torn anguish, Fletcher his overwhelming yearning, or Wilmes his bridled fury.
Only Vin Knight stands out from the ensemble in his various roles. His Owl Eyes in particular adds a certain charm to the party at Gatsby’s house, and his reappearance near the end of the play provides touching levity.
“Gatz” tears “Gatsby” out of the Jazz Age and situates its characters in a dreary office that could easily serve as the set of Samuel Beckett’s bleak “Endgame.” Yet these surroundings emphasize the mainstay of Fitzgerald’s work. As the play progresses, and the narrator comes to realize the careless arrogance that defines Daisy, Tom, and Jordan, the backdrop remains a stark foreshadowing of what lies beneath the lavish glamour of these characters. Stripped of their displays of wealth, the three characters are as cold and unfeeling as the world ERS has created around them. As the set reminds us, even Gatsby has clung so desperately to a passionate dream that will never exist, that the American dream he actually has achieved cannot disguise the empty futility of his romantic ambition.
While attention is focused primarily on the text and performers, these are frequently undermined by the seemingly constant soundscape of city traffic and chirping birds—an obvious attempt at technical verisimilitude. Even the onstage presence of sound designer and operator Ben Williams, who also plays several small roles throughout the production, is less distracting than the unnecessary and incongruous noise with which the performers must compete. The sound design is thankfully more subdued and sparingly used—to greater effect—in the stronger second half of the production.
Light designer Mark Barton’s work does not suffer from the same problems created by the sound design. Bright lights beautifully convert the dingy office into an extravagant party and, in one magnificently lit scene, the tense hotel room where Tom confronts Gatsby and Daisy about their affair.
Possibly the most significant light appears at the end of the first chapter, when Gatsby reaches for the distant green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. The novel’s enduring symbol of the American dream, the green light is paid homage in a lovely moment in which a backlit Gatsby leaves the office, and a small, single green light is visible on the wall. Though it manages to evoke the sorrow and impossibility of Gatsby’s life, doomed to mortality by his idealistic dream, the moment is far from dispiriting—rather, it serves as an evocative reminder of the expression of hope that unites “Gatz” and “Gatsby.”
—Staff writer Ali R. Leskowitz can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Denise J. Xu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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