Thursday, February 11, 2010

Gatz, Elevator Repair Service, American Repertory Theatre, 05.02.10

The other day I subjected myself to more than six hours of continual theatre, attending Elevator Repair Service’s “Gatz” at the American Repertory Theatre. “Gatz” is a dramatization of the entirety of “The Great Gatsby” – every single word of the novel is read out and performed during a marathon theatrical experience split over two performances, Part One and Part Two.

I am not new to such extravagantly long productions: I experienced the 10 hours plus of John Barton’s “Tantalus” (and even worked with him on a part that was cut from the original performance), I spent the whole day watching as “His Dark Materials” came to life before my eyes, and I recently returned from the annual Moby Dick Marathon in New Bedford, where I sat entranced as a group of Melville stalwarts read, in short chunks, the whole of that whale of a novel. So the 6 hours daunted me not.

What I was interested to see was how Elevator Repair Service would hand the tricky act of performing a novel not as an adaptation for the stage, but with the whole text intact – all the “he said”s and “she whispered”s and what have you.

I am delighted to say that, for the most part, they succeeded admirably. The central conceit is a simple one: we begin in an unnamed office in which an unnamed employee is trying to start his day. His computer does not work (he shows us this through mime – there are no words for the first couple of minutes). Since he cannot get to business, he picks up his copy of “The Great Gatsby” and begins to read. We “hear” his inner voice as he reads to himself but, as we find out when other characters enter the scene, the “real” dialogue of his day (that between him and the other workers) is muffled and indistinct – a series of mumbles and amorphous sounds. So, rather like in Shaffer’s “Black Comedy”, where we see the stage lit up the darker it is in the imagined scene, here we hear the character’s inner voice, but are deaf to the speech which is audible in his surroundings.

This simple setup continues for perhaps half an hour – our central character simply reads the book surreptitiously while trying to avoid doing any work, and comedy i provided by the looks of disapproval his conduct engenders in other workers at the office. But slowly, the words of the novel begin to leak out into his real world – a loud bang is heard offstage, and then one is referred to in the text; the magazine another character is reading bears a headline of uncanny resemblance to some item in the novel etc. And then, in one electric moment, one of the other office characters breaks out into audible speech for the first time, addressing our narrator – and speaking words from the novel. Thereafter, the novel begins to take over, co-opting the office staff as characters, and what was a dramatized reading within a theatrical frame becomes more and more a full dramatization. This trend continues in the second part of the production, in which the frame narrative of the office is almost forgotten, and the novel runs the show.

Generally, this makes for an excellent and thought-provoking show, particularly when you begin to see how the characters of the office workers mirror the characters they will later become in the novel. Some ingenious directorial decisions heighten the effect, too. Generally, in dramatized readings I have seen, a sound effect or action will follow its description in the text. So, for instance, someone would say “and they could hear a low groaning sound”, and then the sound would be played for the audience. In “Gatz”, this trend was reversed – actions and effects preceded their novel-bound cause, so you would see key actions performed before hearing Fitzgerald’s description. This was an extremely astute decision since, before long, I found myself expectant, waiting to hear how key actions were to be described. This made me anticipate the text, and therefore listen more closely to it.

Another ingenious stroke was placing the lighting and effects technician front stage left throughout the whole performance, and occasionally taking small roles in the action. This was intriguing, since it provided another layer of narrative – we had the “office layer”, the “Gatsby layer”, but also the “audience layer”, outside of both narratives, which sometimes included the technician, but sometimes did not. So the novel, in a sense, bled through the wall between the audience and the performance by way of the technician.

Particularly powerful were the last few scenes, when our narrator simply sits at a table reading the novel and then, astonishingly, places the novel down and recites the last few pages from memory. Here, it felt like all artifice had been stripped away, and the novel was simply speaking for itself on a darkened stage.

Sometimes, there were missteps and missed opportunities. During the first part, when the office characters were beginning to take on their roles as characters in the novel, there was some hyperactive mime which, although somewhat comedic, rather broke the illusion of both levels of the theatrical reality – it is hard to imagine either the office workers or the characters in the novel engaging in some of the weird, overplayed, flailing movements which a couple of the actors indulged in for a laugh, even if they did illustrate some word or phrase in the text.

Some links between the novel and the office were overly forced, too, making the piece seem occasionally disingenuous – a little as if the cast were shouting “look how smart we are to link these!” An instance when one character far-too-obviously held up a magazine to show the audience the title comes to mind, as does a strange moment when the technician was lining up small metal torpedoes on his table, seemingly for no reason other than to provide a link to the text. My feeling is the subtler the initial transition between office-reality and novel-reality, the more magical and poignant the experience for the audience, and sometimes “Gatz” pushed too hard.

Finally, I wondered about the ending. It was certainly powerful and moving, but its very simplicity – the narrator simply sitting and reading to us – raises powerful questions. Did we need the set and the office frame at all? If the book is that powerful on its own, does it need clever stage devices to sustain our attention? I spent six hours listening to volunteers read Moby Dick aloud and didn’t get bored (I was desperate to stay longer!), so could I not have enjoyed a simple reading of “Gatsby”? I wonder. Also, there was no attempt to “pop-out” into the reality of the office again at the end. I think that may have been a great piece of theatre – the characters slowly returning to their office roles as the spell of the novel wanes. Connections could be made between Fitzgerald’s “story of the west” and the office life in which the workers find themselves, and thoughts could have been provoked.

Something to think about.