Theater Review: GATZ (Berkeley Rep)

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by Harvey Perr on February 14, 2020

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


If you love literature, have fond memories of being read to or of reading to others, and feel, as so many do, that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is in the Pantheon of Great American Novels, and you also have an appetite for ambitious or unusual theater projects and, in particular, marathon theater events, it’d be foolhardy to not run down to Berkeley Rep and savor every moment of the revival of Elevator Repair Service’s justifiably heralded Gatz, whose text is the complete novel.

Yes, it’s over eight hours long (including a two-hour dinner break) and, honestly, is not without its longeurs, but attention must be paid. ERS is one of the country’s most thrilling theater companies, one that has been obsessed with different ways to bring, in the original author’s precise words, the texts of great novels to the stage, but not always, as is the case here, the entire work with every “he said” and “she replied” intact.

It’s what they do to make us look at the novel in ways that are fresh and how they approach the material in such a way as to pay homage to the work and to also bring to it something excitingly new, that makes their work so indelible and why Gatz, in particular, succeeds so brilliantly. This is theater with a mission. How often do you see that?

In an office where the workers do all the weird things that people do in offices every day, more as abstract but comic illustration than as realistically going through a dreary work day, one of the workers starts reading The Great Gatsby. Eventually, the workers, seeing that the life of the novel is infinitely more remarkable than the lives they lead, seem to become part of the novel, and, indeed, to become the characters in the novel. It’s a rapturous idea. It becomes a theatricalization of their dreams and, when it is clear that the novel goes further and deeper than what they can imagine of their own lives, both the novel and the worker/dreamers become more and more complex. In the first half of the performance, there is a certain giddiness which allows the actors to create a hilariously harrowing drunken Manhattan daytime party and even to imagine the reunion between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, usually seen in the film versions (never reliable) as the height of romanticism, as unpredictable farce. This, believe it or not, adds a dimension that may have even eluded Fitzgerald. I will not go into the entire plot, because you will get that just by hearing it read. But, by the time the long day’s journey into evening reaches its dark and deeply resonant ending, the greatness of the novel becomes evident, perhaps in ways you’ve never thought of, even if you’ve read the novel many times as its admirers are wont to do.

The production, despite cast changes, and the passage of time, is extraordinary. The men in the cast acquit themselves a bit more effectively when it comes to creating the characters they’ve assigned themselves to, but the women seem to be having more fun and a generally freer time maneuvering the twists and turns in the novel itself. If I single out Robert M. Johanson’s tough Tom, Jim Fletcher’s limpid Jay, Laurena Allan’s tragi-comic Myrtle, Ross Fletcher’s mournful Henry Gatz, Annie McNamara’s curiously seductive Daisy (and let us not forget to mention Gavin Price’s hilariously manic keyboard moment which the audience would have been happy to see go on forever), it is only because they are at the very heart of the work. It is quite a wonderfully professional ensemble (so, all right, let’s also give credit to Susie Sokol, Frank Boyd, Vin Knight, Lindsay Hockaday, Maggie Hoffman, and Ben Jalosa Williams).

Still, if there is one reason alone to make sure that Gatz, in its current incarnation, must be seen, it is to witness one of the great unsung actors of our generation – Scott Shepherd – read The Great Gatsby. Shepherd, who has been involved in the piece since the beginning and who even played a part in creating it, doesn’t just read. Oh, yes, the book is in his hands with its familiar jacket cover, but it is clear that he probably knows every word of the novel by heart and, if not, he understands and loves its language and its rhythms so well that he conveys it with a deceptively casual clarity and a quiet intensity that is riveting.

Can a great novel become a great day in the theater? ERS has proved, with Gatz, beautifully staged by John Collins, that it most definitely can.

photos by Steven Gunther, Mark Barton and Ian Douglas, Elevator Repair Service

Berkeley Rep
Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre
2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck
ends on February 23, 3030 EXTENDED to March 1, 2020
for tickets, call 510.647.2949 or visit Berkeley Rep

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