“Since the introduction of printing, and the fatal development of the habit of reading amongst the middle and lower classes,” Oscar Wilde wrote in The Critic as Artist, “there has been a tendency in literature to appeal more and more to the eye, and less and less to the ear which…from the standpoint of pure art, it should seek to please.” An aesthete who elevated recitation over print, Wilde would have been quite flummoxed by Gatz, the jaw-dropping literary installation by Elevator Repair Service. This eight-hour-plus immersion—in which 13 actors read aloud every blessed word of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—is thoroughly aural, even musical. And yet, the production acts upon the eye, through a meticulously layered physical score buzzing around Scott Shepherd, our intensely listenable narrator. Shepherd reads beautifully; we watch him read; we listen; we imagine that we read along with him; and so Fitzgerald’s images are burned into our brains by an indirect circuit of seeing and hearing on intermeshed levels. After eight hours of this, our narrative-absorbing faculties have been so recalibrated that we forget where ERS’s frame ends and Fitzgerald’s picture begins.
Directors John Collins and Steve Bodow and their ensemble created the piece and presented a work-in-progress in January 2005 in the Wooster’s Group’s Performing Garage. Because stage rights to The Great Gatsby were owned by the makers of a conventional adaptation, Gatz was prohibited from being performed in the city. Years of international tours and rising acclaim later, the company has come home. To Public Theater chief Oskar Eustis’s enormous credit, he has given one of downtown’s most enduring and original companies (innovating since 1991) the high-profile gig it deserves.
Not that Gatz’s physical setup looks terribly deluxe. Set designer Louisa Thompson’s crummy office appears stuck in the late ’80s (office equipment looking distinctly pre-Mac and -Staples). One dreary morning, suited drone Nick (Shepherd) enters, takeout coffee in hand. Futilely trying to reboot a recalcitrant computer, Nick discovers a battered copy of The Great Gatsby in a Rolodex on his desk. (Collins & Co. are not above a visual pun for “found text.”) Evincing a mix of boredom and vague curiosity, Nick cracks the book open and begins to read. And read. And read some more. Eventually, coworkers wander in: a cocky janitor (Gary Wilmes), an impish colleague who loiters, reading a golf magazine (Susie Sokol), an attractive, sad woman (Victoria Vazquez) who may be having an affair with the janitor. And then there’s the grim, hulking owner (Jim Fletcher) of this unidentified business. Each of the workers takes on a character from Gatsby, and Fletcher, improbably, becomes the title role.
Fletcher doesn’t really resemble the dashing, handsome playboy Jay Gatsby as we may cast him in our minds. That’s as it should be: Gatz is constantly opening up a space between Fitzgerald’s writing and the real life we see before us, in all its silliness, randomness and banality. The book offers escape, a new self, vicarious thrills.
Because secondhand, mediated living—its pleasure and its danger—lies at the heart of both the novel and ERS’s reconstructive project. Those acquainted with the Fitzgerald material know, Jay Gatsby is not what he stages himself to be. Far from the wealthy playboy who bags wild game and amasses rubies, family all conveniently dead, James Gatz is a bootlegger from a poor clan in North Dakota. Gatsby creates an elaborate (if ultimately tawdry) fiction and lives in it. Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, lives through Gatsby, eventually seeing through his lies and delusions, but still enchanted by the beautiful dreamer. We, in turn, are seduced by Nick’s dryly elegant prose. When the novel reaches its end and the plot strands are tied up with aplomb (if a bit of contrived happenstance) the grand title character evaporates into the ether—his wealth, his friends, his glamour, shrunken into Jimmy Gatz, petty crook.
The Great Gatsby never existed; we watch eight hours of people reading the book, but the performance constantly resists full narrative embodiment. If there’s a strong whiff of irony in the honorific “great,” then by calling its work Gatz, ERS lay claim to a sort of purism. After the workday is done, or the party is over, all that’s left is a book. The rest is mere imagination.—David Cote
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