“Gatz” at the Berkeley Rep.

“Gatz” at the Berkeley Rep.

Carol Benet

Theater events like“Gatz” at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre do not come to us often. When they do it is important to seize the moment. The six-hour performance “Gatz” is one of the best productions to come our way.

It was created by the Elevator Repair Service troupe (ERS) in New York and comes to us with the entire cast and technicians from there. “Gatz” is a reading, recitation and acting out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American classic “The Great Gatsby”. Consisting of two parts with one starting at 2 p.m. for chapters 1-5 and lasting until 5:30 with one intermission, a dinner break of two hours and part two resuming at 7;30 p.m. for another three hours, also with one intermission to the end of the book’s 9 chapters.  It is a tour de force.

There have been other marathon performances and readings of classic literature. In Philadelphia at the Rosenbach there is a yearly  reading of James Joyce’sUlysses” on  Bloomsday, June 16, the day when Leopold Bloom was to have wandered around Dublin.   There was even the seven hour performance of Charles Dicken’s  “Nicholas Nickleby” at the College of Marin in 1985, five years after opening at the Royal Shakespeare in London.

“The Great Gatsby” is a true American classic telling the story of Jay Gatsby, his enormous fortune, his love for Daisy, his mansion at West Egg on Long Island, his fabulous parties with hundreds of freeloading guests and eventually his funeral attended by only a handful of people.

This stage version so expertly directed by John Collins, founder of ERS in 1991, is set in an ordinary office where three men are working, one at an old-fashion typewriter, a second at a desk on the side of the stage.  The third is Nick trying to get his desk-top computer of the 70’s or early 80’s to work.  A repairman has to come and fiddle with it, remove it, return it and take it away again more than a few times.

Nick is played by the phenomenal Scott Shepherd who reads the entire book while he is waiting for his computer to kick in.   He is engrossed in the text while other actors also play characters from the book.  Many of them transform from the office staff. The entire play remains within this office space only relying on the audience’s imagination to transform it into Gatsby’s mansion, Nick’s tiny rental next-door, an apartment for trysts and a Plaza Hotel suite where wild, drunken parties take place.

We in the Bay Area are used to this kind of staging thanks to the innovative troupe Word for Word that takes short stories by famous writers and turns them into plays that they act out word for word. But here “Gatz”  is an entire novel.  My copy old paperback copy has 190 pages.

All the sets (Louisa Thompson) are made from what is on the stage for the office.  Costumes are contemporary (Colleen Werthmann) but some times dip back into the period when the novel was imagined to take place in the 20s. The secretary Lucile (Maggie Hoffman) wears high sided shoes from this era but the rest of the dress is contemporary. 

Shepherd reads almost all the time from a paperback copy of “The Great Gatsby” but at moments of high drama and at the end when Fitzgerald writes of the decline of American civilization, he has these lines memorized.  And it is here that Fitzgerald’s writing is so applicable to today  as it relates to our own democracy that is now in danger as it is so fragile and requires so much vigilance,.  In “Gatsby” the selfish rich elites, conspicuous consumers, swindlers and criminals were part of the world that Fitzgerald that created.  At the time of writing it he was much influenced by a reading of  Oswald Spengler’s “The Decline of the West”, a book that should be reviewed today.

Jordan (Susie Sokol) plays the convincing golf club swinging friend of Daisy (Annie McNamara), the unobtainable object Gatsby’s love. Gatsby has devoted his whole life is to win her back after a brief romance five years earlier. Jim Fletcher’s plays the role of Gatsby in all its full production runs around the world.  He is a tall, serious, determined man who is used to getting what he wants.  He fits the description of the self-made man and he’s affectations of being from a higher lineage, punctuated by his “Old Sport’ that he uses to address Nick, are perfect.

Shepherd’s Nick, the young writer who happens to rent a small affordable place next to Gatsby is truly an amazing actor who brings the story, all 7 hours of it to fruition.  Myrtle (Laurena Allan) the outlandish, loud “wide-hipped” garish mistress of Tom is convincing as is her downtrodden husband George (Frank Boyd). Myrtle’s sister Catherine (Lindsay Hockaday) is also the associate produced of “Gatz”.   Ewing (Gavin Price) is another representative of the lower class where Tom likes to dally.  

In reading any novel, you create your own image of the characters in the book and this stage Daisy did not fit mine.  For me Daisy should have been a beautiful, charming southern belle.  But maybe the ERS troupe played her just as she should be — an ordinary, rather passive Daisy who in reality was not that enticing, charming, or special so that in reality she is not be what Gatsby had imagined all these years after all.

Key to the performance are the sounds created by Ben Jalosa Williams who created street noises outside the office, car crashed in the plot, music for the extravagant parties.  Williams is the third actor in the office as he sits on the side working his sound system that to us looks like ordinary laptop computer. 

Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan (Robert M. Johanson) was pure evil.  And Fitzgerald’s description of Daisy and Tom lives on in the famous quote: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”  

This stage production of “Gatz” is unlike shortened versions of books you see in the movies or T.V. In this “Gatsby” every word of Fitzgerlad’s gorgeous prose is here in a spectacular performance that runs through March 1, 2020 at the Berkeley Rep. 

510 647 2949 or  customerservice@berkeleyrep.org. 


About the Author

Carol BenetCarol Benet received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won an Outstanding Teaching Award. She also received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Her teaching assignments have been at UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, Dominican University and Washington State University. Currently she holds literature discussion groups in Marin County and San Francisco and is a critic of the arts for The Ark Newspaper and a contributor to ARTSSF.com and ForAllEvents.com.View all posts by Carol Benet →