If you closed your eyes for any extended duration during Elevator Repair Service’s six-hour performance Gatz, your experience would not be unlike that of listening to an NPR-issued audio book of The Great Gatsby. A wry, understated male voice gives voice to each word on the page, and when other characters speak, most often times they would be delivered by other actors (although not always). You would hear underscoring music and sound effects, similar to a radio program. The overall effect would most likely be pleasurable, given the assumption that one enjoys audio books and had desire to hear F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel read cover to cover. Would you listen to it for six straight hours? Hard to say – perhaps if on an international flight? But like any of the streaming on-demand entertainments available, that choice (how long to listen, how to parcel out the content’s duration) would be left up to you.
How is Gatz different than an audio book? Stating the most obvious – it’s in a theater. There are breaks to allow for a respite here and there, including a dinner break. The longest stretch of uninterrupted performance is 120 minutes, with most of the other sections clocking in between 80-90 minutes. It is, intentionally, exhausting, for actors and audience alike. Like any long haul, there is a period in the middle where it’s uncertain as to whether continuing on will be worth the work. And like the more memorable durational experiences, the last third is exceedingly exhilarating. As one draws nearer and nearer to the conclusion, a sense of palpable loss sets in. Eyes bleary from the constant focus required, body aching from cramped quarters, sippy cup long empty, still – one doesn’t want it to end.
Surrendering seems key. Unlike when a choice is yours (how long to read, watch, hike, drive, work, etc.), to experience Gatz is to give up one’s control over certain elements, like time. Outside, afternoon turns to evening, then night. Inside, the world of Gatsby’s ill-fated courtship of Daisy fills the stage and seeps out over the audience – it’s an infectious seduction of a novel, and hearing it read out loud is surprisingly effective in and of itself. That must have been an intriguing revelation for Elevator Repair Service as they first worked on the piece (due to the copyright issues, the play didn’t premiere in New York until 2010, over ten years after they started work on it). Most novels (intended to be heard inside the head, not spoken out loud by someone else) wouldn’t have been dynamic if simply read aloud on a stage, but uttering this text worked. Nothing else was required to make it work, other than – and this realization suddenly turning what might have been a two-hour edit into a six-hour-long marathon – each word was required to keep the spell from breaking. Each “he said” and each “she said” were vital to the overall musicality of the language. So, all they had to do was all of it.
Rules are important. The main rule to Gatz: Each word of the novel will be spoken out loud. No other extraneous dialogue will exist, except of the under-the-breath variety. The book itself will be present onstage throughout. The actor playing Nick, whose voice is the central narrator, will hold the book and at least appear to be actually reading it for the first time. This is not, then, a recitation. It’s an act of discovery.
A discovery, though, requires a discoverer. Director John Collins’ master stroke is the creation of the character who will become Nick (embodied by the extraordinary Scott Shepherd), and the environment in which this character will first appear. Collins creates a sad-looking pre-cell phone office, with 1980s computer monitors and massive stacks of files stage right. It’s maybe a bond office (there is a mirroring of the book’s text when the man who becomes Nick answers the phone early in his transformation that leads one to believe this) infused with Kafkaesque pointlessness. There is much sorting of mail. The phones ring aimlessly. The man’s computer doesn’t work, which leads him to pick up the novel out of frustration in the first place. For the first forty minutes or so, we simply experience him reading. Eventually he begins to characterize the other voices. It becomes harder for him to put the book down, and he begins to carry it with him to other locations in the office, reading as he works. As they must, the other office dwellers become part of the novel’s word, stepping in and giving voice to the other characters while still maintaining an external office-worker presence. This quality of internal/external is remarkable in its efficiency and clarity. It allows the free movement of characters across the stage when they’re not supposed to be there (the tech guy trying to fix the computer wanders by a number of times for no reason apparent in the novel, but with perfect logic for the office environment), which then allows for a number of staging opportunities to present themselves. Exits and entrances are not theatrically fixed (as in, anyone can come and go at any time so long as it fits the logic of one of the worlds). Repetition becomes possible. Mirroring and doubling start to complicate both worlds, as they blur ever closer. The moment in which the office boss (played by ERS veteran Jim Fletcher) becomes Gatsby is executed well before Gatsby even has a line in the novel, communicated through staging and light by visually echoing a passage in the novel that describes Gatsby staring off over the bay. Its simplicity is striking, and evolving from that simplicity comes expectation. We will see Fletcher a few more times before he becomes Gatsby entirely, and we wait with great anticipation until we reach the point at which Gatsby is to speak. Will it be Fletcher’s voice? Of course it will.
So – don’t close your eyes, unless you want to. You’d be missing out of this multiplex of a production, offering up primary and secondary ways of watching at all points of the performance. There are even moments in which Gatz is able to successfully point out of itself. In function, this is achieved ala the methodology employed most effectively by the television show The Office, with the actor (most often Scott Shepherd) pausing at a particularly purple bit of prose or at a problematically tone-deaf statement with regard to our current politics to acknowledge it by glancing out over the audience with discomfort or disbelief. It’s an important tool, capable of diffusing the potential ill-will of allowing the text itself to exist unchallenged (Fitzgerald spends quite a bit of time callously discussing the physical and mental traits of women). The production allows itself the ability to cringe, and in doing so, hops over the most treacherous moments to more solid footing.
As a fellow Midwesterner (along with Fitzgerald, and his main character Nick), I had forgotten about the final chapter, which contrasts the monied lives of those from the East with the less sophisticated yet perhaps more grounded lives of those from the central and western parts of our country. It could have been written last week. So much time has passed, I thought, since the writing of this novel, and yet, in many of the most important ways, our country hasn’t changed much. Not enough, at least, to feel certain of its progress. So much time has passed too since the beginning of the creative process that would lead to this production’s birth, yet it could have been made yesterday. Time is slippery like that, and Gatz allows us to reach out again and again, each time grasping something from one or both worlds, holding it a time for inspection, then releasing it back into the space that exists between listening, watching, believing, and living.