Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

It is Written

October 13, 2010

A scene from the Elevator Repair Service's Gatz Photo: Chris Beirens

I should run for governor. It should be easy enough. These days it appears all you have to know how to do is vilify minority groups or provide the populace with movie picks to get elected. I’ve got some ideas for real change, though. How about improving public high school education by replacing actual reading in English Literature classes with avant-garde theater performances of the same novels. I can tell you from first hand experience that it worked wonders for me after seeing the seven plus hours of Gatz from the troupe known as the Elevator Repair Service at the Public Theater in New York this weekend. I’d seen the group once before in Los Angeles at REDCAT in one of the most memorable performances I’ve seen in recent years, The Sound and The Fury (April Seventh, 1928), and was highly anticipating Gatz, a larger scale project using a similar tactic. Gatz has made the company’s name, and well it should. It’s nothing short of a theater miracle.

The gambit is this. The company performs the entire text of F. Scott Fitgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. What I mean by this is that the novel is read aloud by a narrator, Scott Shepherd of Wooster Group fame, who assumes the role of the novel's narrator, Nick Carraway. All of the rest of the novel's dialog is spoken as lines by the other members of the cast. And in the instance of Gatz, the company offers a multi-layered interpretation. All of the physical action and dialog occur within the context of a modern day office. The narrator enters his office at the beginning of the show and wordlessly struggles to get his computer to boot up. He stumbles across a copy of Gatsby as he contemplates this everyday chore and begins to read aloud. Soon other office workers, going about their daily routines, are drawn into his reading and begin to take on the roles of characters in the novel. This classic tale of the limits of self-determination and the dark side of the American Dream cannily parallels the beat-up workday office world of the cast, and the myths Fitzgerald brought to life nearly a century ago are again examined, but this time under the glow of fluorescent lights.

I hated this novel in high school and hadn’t thought about it in years. But hearing it now in such a thoughtful and exciting context made me see the novel anew and as something vital and far less obtuse than I remember. There’s even room for telling humor and self-awareness of the novel’s own idiosyncrasies here with a cast that is both inside and outside the primary performance of the text at the same time. And while the entire ensemble cast was spectacular, I must make special mention of Shepherd. I’ve read that after the many performances of Gatz the troupe has given around the world over the last five years, he has the novel memorized. Although he appears to refer to the text throughout, he does deliver the entire last chapter from memory after six grueling hours. Even with three day-long performances a week, it’s a wonder that he gets through the show while still maintaining his voice. Granted, Gatz is not a short and sweet evening at the theater, and you should be prepared to sit for a good stretch. But missing this great and unique experience, if you have a chance to go in New York, would be a big mistake, so go. The show continues through November 28, and I'd see it again in a heartbeat if I had the chance. And if I'm elected governor, I'll make sure that everyone else gets a chance to as well.


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