“Gatz” is a brilliant six hour ‘mixed-bag’ of theatre at Berkeley Rep.

Ensemble in Elevator Repair Service’s production of Gatz, directed by John Collins. Photo by Mark Barton

GATZ: Theatrical piece created and performed by the Elevator and Repair Service. Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org. Source: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

February 13-March 11, 2020

“Gatz” is a brilliant six hour ‘mixed-bag’ of theatre at Berkeley Rep. Rating: ★★★★★

“Reader’s theatre is a style of theater in which the actors do not memorize their lines. Actors use only vocal expression to help the audience understand the story rather than visual storytelling such as sets, costumes, intricate blocking, and movement.” Reader’s theater was developed as an efficient and effective way to present literature in dramatic form. Today, most scripts are adaptations, though others are original dramatic works. Later the concept of “Word for Word” came in vogue and San Francisco’s theatrical group of the same name added to that concept by producing full staging of written works including the he-she said. “Gatz” that is receiving a stunning 6 ½ hour plus staging by the Elevator and Repair Service at Berkeley Rep’s proscenium arch  Roda Theatre using a combination of both bringing “The Great Gatsby” novel to life.

It all begins in drab warehouse office set with boxes and files lining stage left and single desk/table center stage where a worker (Scott Shepard) is having a problem booting up his ancient computer. The time frame for the present day action is the 1980s but the book, “The Great Gatsby”,   is reflective of the 1920s flapper era. The idle worker picks up the dog-eared novel and begins to read aloud and we are aware that he will read the book word for word over the next 6 hours beginning at 2 PM and ending at 10:30 PM with two intermissions and a two hour dinner break.  The production was created in 2006 and has received mostly rave reviews abroad and in the U.S.A. and earned a standing ovation on opening night in Berkeley. For this reviewer it was the post dinner break performance that earned that accolade since it fit more into the word for word format allowing one to fully accept the entire staging.

As Shepard reads he becomes not only the reader but morphs into the character of Nick Carraway the narrator of the book who is Fitzgerald’s observant protagonist. Various workers arrive and director Collins deftly fits them into characters from the novel yet allows them to seamlessly revert back to their office worker status.  A raucous party written in the book allows him to create a present day scene with office files being strewn about reflective of the mayhem depicting a party.  Yet, the next morning actors clean up the scattered files thus moving back into their present day world.

The office workers are unnamed until they take on the personae of Fitzgerald’s characters as the reading continues. The major character, the Gatz (Jim Fletcher) of the title, is Jay Gatsby Nick’s neighbor. They are both WW I veterans and each know the enigmatic Daisy (Anne McNamara) who is to become a catalyst in the tragic event leading to the cataclysmic ending. Gatsby is mysterious and extremely wealthy often giving lavish parties attended by the glitterati of New York City but he never is a participant. Rumors are rampant as to his background and the source of his wealth. He is in love with Daisy who is married to Tom Buchanan (Robert M. Johanson) a domineering ex-football player. Nick learns through his friend and golfer Jordan (Susie Sokol) that Tom is having an affair with Myrtle Wilson (Laurena Allan).

Eventually Nick arranges for Gatsby and Daisy to meet and they rekindle their love that engulfs Gatsby to the point of obsession that later impels him to accept blame for a tragic accident caused by her. All this happens in the third and final section of the production. In that final section the characters involved are “off-book” giving a more satisfying word for word twist to the evening.

Although this reviewer is more partial to the word for word format the initial concept of Shepard’s reading to allow the other actors to step seamlessly in and out of the story each giving admirable to superb performances. Many of the actors have been with the production for years with Shepard having played the role of Nick for ten years and has actually memorized the text.

John Collins brilliantly moves his actors between present day scenes and into the story allowing most of his actors to earn accolades. An interesting conceit is placing sound designer Ben Jalosa Williams partially in shadows at a desk downstage right controlling his computer and occasionally being drawn into the action in minor roles. Those sound cues would earn a Tony award and they are given added emphasis by the atmospheric lighting by Mark Barton. It truly is a must see production.

CAST: Laurena Allan (Performer); Frank Boyd (Performer); Jim Fletcher (Performer); Ross Fletcher (Performer); Lindsay Hockaday (Performer and Associate Producer); Maggie Hoffman (Performer); Robert M. Johanson (Performer); Vin Knight (Performer); Gavin Price (Performer); Scott Shepherd (Performer); Susie Sokol (Performer); Lucy Taylor (Performer); Ben Jalosa Williams (Performer and Sound Designer).

PRODUCTION STAFF: Director John Collins; Lighting  Mark Barton; Set Designer Louisa Thompson; Sound Designer Ben Jalosa Williams; Sound engineer Jason Sebastian; Costume Designer Colleen Werthmann; Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Kedar K. Adour, MD