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By the Book

By Shawn Stone




In the eight decades since F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, his jazz-age novel of one man’s romantic obsession crashing against cold reality (and colder American dollars), the well-loved story has consistently resisted adaptation for the stage or screen. It wasn’t for lack of trying—but few were happy with the multiple attempts. Some takes captured the atmosphere of wealth and 1920s excess but missed the dramatic empahsis; usually the adaptations omitted key scenes or added new ones.

Or maybe it’s because so much of the novel consists of the musings of its narrator, naïve Midwestern transplant Nick Carraway. Or it’s because the title character, Jay Gatsby, and the object of Gatsby’s devotion, Daisy Buchanan, are so elusive and difficult to bring to life.

New York City experimental theater group Elevator Repair Service decided to do Gatsby the hard way: Gatz is staged around a verbatim reading of the entire novel—including every “he said” and “she said”—from beginning to end. Most of this work falls to one actor, with dialogue spoken by the other performers. They break it into four sections, divided by two intermissions and a dinner break. (At this weekend’s performances at the theater in RPI’s gleaming new EMPAC building, dinner was included with the ticket.) The whole thing runs a little over seven and a half hours. And mostly, against the odds, the concept works.

The setting is more or less contemporary: a dingy, faux wood-paneled office set with a short couch and two desks, holding a typewriter, computer and some papers at the center of the stage; a glassed-in secretary’s office on the left connects to a hallway running along the back of the stage, which can be seen though a small picture window and a door; the scene is rounded out by some filing cabinets and a storage area at right and a scattering of office chairs.

At the beginning, a man comes in the door, sits at his desk, turns on his computer, and opens a big rolodex. (That’s why it’s “more or less” contemporary; the office equipment is just a little out of date.) Inside that rolodex is a copy of The Great Gatsby. He begins reading. Various people come and go, including a disapproving secretary, a tall man who may be the boss, a swaggering blue-collar guy, and a mysterious woman who mostly sits on the couch reading a golf magazine. Three other women (and three other men) appear briefly.

The man (Scott Shepherd) continues to read. The pantomimes of the other performers start to suggest the characters in the book. Finally, the swaggering fellow (Gary Wilmes) starts speaking Tom Buchanan’s dialogue. The magazine reader becomes golfer Jordan Baker (Susie Sokol); the boss (Jim Fletcher) becomes Jay Gatsby. The other actors become other characters, as the action mutates from a guy reading a book to a dramatic staging of the story. It’s weird, unsettling and totally effective.

Elevator Repair Service is a company of actors, nonactors and performers who fall somewhere in between. The effect is disarming. While Shepherd (who becomes, naturally, Nick), Wilmes and Laurena Allan (who hilariously channels Kirsten Dunst as Tom’s mistress, the hapless Myrtle Wilson) give full-blooded performances, as Gatsby and Jordon, Fletcher and Sokol (who teaches second grade as her day job) present effective archetypes. The other actors are all over the place: Annie McNamara plays multiple roles with elan and Vin Knight is brilliant as the owl-eyed man in Gatsby’s library. Tory Vazquez is a woeful Daisy, however.

One problem even this ensemble couldn’t crack is that the book has an early dramatic climax and a long, meditative denouement. And after six-plus hours, the last section, while beautiful and essential, seemed long. But in a production of this scale and ambition, that almost seems like a petty complaint. Gatz was a rewarding afternoon (and evening).


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