"Gatz," Elevator Repair Service's celebration of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" now at REDCAT, has persuaded theatergoers around the world to sit for a full-text stage rendering of a novel many have read at least once before and possibly written a term paper on in high school.
Getting people to give up more than eight hours (with intermissions and a dinner break) of their lives is some feat, and it speaks to a hunger for literary nourishment that ERS is satisfying in an endurance-testing way that forces audiences to choose between their brains and their backsides.
Brains win. But steel yourself for some discomfort and the difficulty of surrendering your attention for such an extended length of time. (No one at Wednesday's performance broke out into DTs from smartphone withdrawal, but sweat, I'll admit, started pooling on my own brow midway through the second half.)
The marathon is prompted by a computer's recalcitrance. While waiting for his cranky desktop to boot, an office drone pulls out a paperback copy of "The Great Gatsby" and starts reading … and … reading ... and reading aloud.
The actor performing this task is Scott Shepherd, a theater artist renowned in avant-garde circles for his work with the Wooster Group and ERS. His tone, halfway between the inner voice of the solitary reader and the self-effacing though unfailingly stylish manner of narrator Nick Carraway, is one of the production's magnificent achievements.
Gradually, the office workers in the slightly retro, fluorescently lighted warehouse begin to assume the identities of the characters in the novel. This transformation happens fluidly yet capriciously — the company, ever self-conscious, treats us as fellow conspirators. We're in on the joke of a nondescript work setting (perfectly designed by Louisa Thompson) becoming the conjuring space for Fitzgerald's tale of Jazz Age decadence and duplicity.
There's something seductive about the performers' relaxed grace, the casual ease with which they move between fictional realms and the enjoyment they take in their own freedom. They might have a tongue-in-cheek air about them, but their commitment is total.
Directed by John Collins, "Gatz" is a preposterous undertaking, as ambitious as it is curiously understated for a New York-based performance group that has never shied away from wacky. It's not that the company's signature deadpan insouciance is kept under wraps, but the production is devoted to the act of reading.
Illustrative sketches accompany the narration but full-scale dramatization is curtailed. The book's party scenes get rowdy — in one particularly violent gathering water bottles are tossed about and office papers are thrown up in the air — but whole chunks of the book are animated with nothing more than concentrated stillness.
The text is king — an arrangement that is only fitting for a novel that may just be the most exquisitely written work of American literature. This isn't to say that "Gatsby" is a perfect novel. The work is memorable less for its plot than for its swanky 1920s Long Island milieu, for its exposure of the dirty secrets of the American dream and for its cascade of miraculously poised sentences. (Note to authors of writer's handbooks: Get over your distaste for adverbs — Fitzgerald adores them and they enhance the rhythm of his prose.)
"The Great Gatsby" has enticed yet eluded traditional dramatic adaptation. Capturing the book is as difficult a prospect as casting Gatsby, a dashing, dreamlike figure that not even Robert Redford in the 1974 movie version could do justice to. (Next at bat is Leonardo DiCaprio in the upcoming Baz Luhrmann film.)
Jim Fletcher doesn't attempt to impersonate Gatsby as much as render him in sympathetic outline. A solid and imposing though not especially elegant presence, he translates Fitzgerald's emotional regard for the character while preserving the air of mystery that forms the basis of the slowly unraveling plot.
What's most memorable about Fletcher is the masculine rumble of his voice, a sound emanating from some haunted inner chamber. Gatsby's self-confidence is audibly inflected with regret and sorrow. Regret for the deceits and concealments of a man forced to don a mask to rise in a society in which social class is more determinative than anyone would care to admit. Sorrow for the love that has burned within him for Daisy (Victoria Vazquez), now married to Tom (Robert Cucuzza), the ex-college football player who is the callous embodiment of Ivy League privilege.
ERS approaches the characterizations in a manner that's delightfully varied. Vazquez, who wears a strand of pearls and is stylishly attired, reflects Daisy's feminine allure — she's a delicate silhouette, a waft of perfume, luring men to chase shadows.
Cucuzza, on the other hand, resembles Tom in only his hulking build. He is defined by the set of keys that dangles from his belt loop. This is a reminder that the book is being brought to dreamy life by warehouse employees. But more important, it's a symbol of the menacing control Tom asserts over the love triangle he unexpectedly finds himself in with Daisy and that "old sport" fraud, Gatsby.
Susie Sokol brings an athletic impishness to the role of Jordan, the golfer with flexible scruples who feeds Nick information yet can't ensnare his heart. The actress has long incarnated ERS' unconventional aesthetic, a blend of daffiness, gravity and winking irony, and she presides here like the company's wonderful mascot.
But in this my second encounter with "Gatz" (the first was at New York's Public Theater in 2010), it has become clearer that the core of this production is Shepherd's hypnotic Nick, Fletcher's poignant Gatsby and on-stage sound designer and actor Ben Williams, who wrings radio play enchantment from his soundboard. (Also deserving special kudos is lighting designer Mark Barton, whose illumination, fluorescent and otherwise, encapsulates Collins' production in a magic bubble.)
There were moments — maybe around hour 4 or so — when I wished the company wouldn't have been averse to editing. Did every plot tangent need to be included? Probably not, but the completist aspect of "Gatz" is undeniably part of its appeal.
Fortunately, Fitzgerald's writing never fails to remunerate readers with its unsurpassed style and penetrating insights into the American character. The vision may be unflattering, but there's something consoling about the way Nick confides his truth to us. And in their herculean appreciation of an extraordinary book, Shepherd and the rest of the ensemble increase our own gratitude to the author.
Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles
When: Schedule varies. Ends Dec. 9.
Tickets: $105 to $150
Contact: (213) 237-2800 or http://www.redcat.org
Running time: Approximately 8 hours with intermissions and dinner break
INTERACTIVE: Christopher Hawthorne's On the Boulevards
TIMELINE: John Cage's Los Angeles
PHOTOS: Arts and culture in pictures