Into a drab, empty office setting with its metal shelves full of boxes that are clearly full of folders full of papers walks a man in his blue shirt and tie who sits at a table and attempts to turn on his computer – a clunky-looking model by today’s standards from some time period fifteen-to-twenty years ago. After several frustrating attempts, he opens a small container on his desk and finds a ragged copy of what may be the most popular, twentieth-century, American novel: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
He rather randomly opens the first page, pauses, and then begins reading aloud, “In my younger and more vulnerable years.” What he does not yet know but what we who have entered Berkeley Repertory’s Roda Theatre on this bright and sunny afternoon at 2 p.m. are most assuredly aware is that he will continue reading the entire novel – actually he is incredibly reciting every word from memory – and will complete it in the dark of our night around 10:30 p.m. After six-plus hours of witnessing the novel come to life (as well as enjoying three intermissions and one dinner break), we will leave having heard the entirety of Fitzgerald’s classic in this touring production created in 2006 and performed extensively ever since by New York’s Elevator Repair Service. Most assuredly, I can bear witness I left nothing short of exhilarated and astounded, having experienced a live theatrical, day/night event ranking up there for me with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Dave Edgar’s stage adaptation of Nicolas Nickleby, and Alan Ayckbourn’s The Divide. For me, the experience of Gatz was totally captivating, often mesmerizing, and surprisingly amusing.
The man whose voice step-by-step goes from curious monotone to engaged interest to enthused mimic of a number of quirky characters becomes the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, a Yale graduate, WWI veteran, and a bonds salesman who has arrived on Long Island’s West Egg, about to turn thirty. Still trying periodically to start up his obviously dead computer, he continues to read aloud as various co-workers arrive, each looking bemusedly at him and then proceeding to do everything from typing, reading a magazine, or coming back and forth trying to fix his problem. One by one, his compatriots walk over, look over his shoulder at the book or pull up a chair beside him and begin to take on the roles of the various characters of Fitzgerald’s tale of 1922 and the good and bad of pursuing the Great American Dream.
Other workers coming in and out of the office join our diligent reader – now fully engrossed in his role as Nick – as they all go in and out of their Gatsby characterizations and their real-time roles as office workers, often with hilarious effects for those of us watching. A raucous party of drunken socialites in the novel results in an office full of scattered papers from those folders on the shelves that have been tossed wildly about like confetti, which the next morning are viewed sheepishly by arriving workers as the aftermath of some office party, with their frenetically cleaning the mess up while our narrator continues to read away the events of the post-party day in the novel.
Scott Shepherd masterfully holds our attention from first word to last as narrator and Nick. Listening to his steady and easy flowing voice reminded me of the joys of being read to as a boy. He reads – which of course means he says from memory – each sentence as if reading for the first time, sometimes pausing to reflect, to puzzle, or to enjoy what was just read. Often he is so absorbed in his aloud reading that the office-worker-half of him amusedly ignores work requests from his colleagues, with their reacting in ways like rolling their eyes at others in the office and walking away throwing their hands up in exasperation.
As Nick, Mr. Shepherd displays a wide range of emotions from both fascination and frustration of his new friend Jay Gatsby to both timid attraction and eventual infatuation of his possible girlfriend, Jordan. There are times he becomes so absorbed as Nick who is listening to the dialogues of other characters that once they are finished, they look at him with a “what’s next?” expression, waiting for the narrator once again to look at the book in his hands and to read what in fact does come next in the story. He does so, a bit startled and embarrassed but quickly is back into his role as the narrating reader. It would be difficult to imagine anyone encompassing this most central role any better than does Scott Shepherd.
Surrounding him in the office and from the pages of the novel is an equally superb cast. A young office worker who likes to read Golf magazine and practice her teeing poses from its pictures becomes the novel’s golf champion, Jordan Baker. Played by Susie Sokol with a wonderful mix of smirked sarcasm, cool aloofness, and proneness to tease, Jordan is destined to be Nick’s first pal and then girlfriend. She is also the childhood friend of Daisy Buchanan (Annie McNamara), who is Nick’s second cousin and a somewhat shallow but effervescent socialite. She is married rather unhappily to millionaire Tom, an ex-college jock and friend of Nick’s, played with big-time ego and gruff by Robert M. Johanson, often blasting his way past others in harsh voice. In a novel that explores themes of resistance to change, prejudice against ‘the other,’ and overall social decadence, Tom epitomizes many of those characteristics in his attitudes and open blurts that make others around him cringe or look the other way.
Daisy’s unhappiness with Tom comes to full light when they are invited to a party of Jay Gatsby, a man she has not seen in five years at a time when they as two singles were in love before he had to go serve his country in the Great War. Their reunion sends both of them into the novel’s twists and turns that will eventually spell disasters aplenty.
Gatsby is wonderfully embodied by the man who seems to be regarded by others as the office’s manager when he is not the mysterious millionaire with a huge mansion that hosts on a regular basis big parties with plenty of booze and society’s supposed finest. Jim Fletcher is marvelously reserved, somewhat monotoned by nature, and yet totally magnetic in his attraction by everyone around him (except Tom, of course). Mr. Fletcher’s own bald head becomes a running focus of a joke for Nick as narrator and for even Gatsby himself as lines in the novel refer to the ‘head of hair’ that is supposedly atop Gatsby’s head, with there being usually a pregnant pause and a look of ‘really?’ by the narrator to Gatsby at every such mention.
Tom himself has an ongoing affair with a rapid-talking, gregarious, always on-the-move Myrtle Wilson (a vivacious Laurena Allan), who is desperately looking for a way out of her marriage with gas station owner and auto mechanic, George. As George, Frank Boyd also roams in and out in his gray overalls as another office worker who seems to be trying to convince the narrator that he is actually trying to fix his broken computer.
Vin Knight is a hoot as the high-pitched, somewhat effeminate and bowtied friend of Gatsby’s, Chester McKee, married to Lucille, who is played with much spunk and prattle by Maggie Hoffman. Gavin Price has one of the best spotlight moments as a visiting piano player, Ewing, who beckons to Gatsby’s request to play for him and his paramour, Daisy, a wild set of 1920’s tunes on an imaginary piano that is actually the back of the office’s couch. Ewing crazily plays away, even employing his elbows ending the set and the Part One of the two-part Gatz, singing and ‘playing’ the foxtrot ditty, “Ain’t We Got Fun.”
Rounding out the cast and serving both as a multiple, bit-role actor and as the production’s sound designer and onstage sound board operator is Ben Jalosa Williams. Sound effects play a major part in the production, with split-second insertions of everything from phone rings to thunder to car crashes along with an entire array of music from Mendelsohn to the jazz of the early 1920s. Sometimes staying put and sometime leaving for a few minutes his side stage desk and sound board, Mr. Williams plays everything from various butlers to police to a key character in the novel’s climax, a young Greek coffee-joint owner who witnesses an event that changes (or ends) the lives of many of the novel’s main characters.
Not enough praise can adequately describe the hundreds of clever inspirations and choices of John Collins as the director of the massively complicated production. The many comings and goings, the constant mixture of office reality and novel’s story, or the appearance of accidents like tumbling over an office’s bucket that coincides with the narrator reading about a staircase tumble – literally countless examples exist of a director guiding this exceptional cast through the two worlds of the six hours of Gatz.
Besides the crucial role of sound effects, lighting plays a major role in the split-focus of the novel’s and office’s days and nights as well as of read-aloud and real-time events and occurrences. Mark Barton finds a myriad of ways to turn an office normally full of florescence glare into every possible array of shadows, subtleties, and substantive spot- and highlights.
Louisa Thompson’s designed set and property elements (the latter by the thousands, it seems) offer their own incredible contribution to create a dull-looking office that suddenly explodes with surprises as it becomes everything from mansion to service station to train station or seaside shore. Colleen Werthmann has dressed the cast in their everyday office wear along in some occasional surprises when the novel’s characters suddenly appear in chiffon gowns or hot-pink suit and tie.
While Gatz deserves nothing short of a highest recommendation to go see, I did not walk away without some minor criticisms. Because there are absolutely no edits of Fitzgerald’s novel, there are a few times when the energy wanes, and I personally found myself wandering in attention – this particularly occurring near the beginning of Act One of Part Two. Also after six hours of both riveting drama and laugh-out-loud comedic moments, the novel’s rather long denouement as read by the narrator falls a bit flat (in my opinion) and in the end, seems anticlimactic. But perhaps my biggest beef with the production (which I am still suffering from today) is the choice to use real cigarettes and a real cigar during Part Two. Even where I sat halfway back in the theatre, I and people all around me were coughing and fanning themselves or even taking a scarf or handkerchief and covering their mouths and noses.
But with that said, anyone who is either a fan of unique theatrical events and/or F. Scott Fitzgerald should not miss grabbing a ticket to this Elevator Repair Service tour at Berkeley Repertory Theatre before it closes in the relatively short time of March 1. This is an experience to be remembered and relished for many years to come.
Rating: 5 E
Gatz continues through March 1, 2020 on the Roda stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/boxoffice/index.asp or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.
Photo Credits: Ian Douglas, Steven Gunther, and Mark Barton