Los Angeles – The Great Gatsby verbatim…in a staged performance
GATZ is a curious sort of theatre piece to write about. To describe it by adhering to the traditional conventions of theatre doesn’t describe it at all. First of all, this production by the Elevator Repair Service at the always-wonderful REDCAT in Downtown Los Angeles was a complete textual reading of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. As a complete reading, it required seven hours with several breaks including dinner. This would be a daunting piece to do even seated, but to perform it word for word as a staged work is a special kind of theatrical animal created through a very dedicated troupe and was many years in the making.
In a theatre movement begun in the late 60s, there was the notion, which possibly began with theatre guru Richard Schechner and was paraphrased by one of my college instructors, Will Shephard: “the text is only the starting point.” Profoundly disagreeing with Schechner and Dr. Shephard, I thought it made the playwright of very little importance and without the words there would be nothing. I never imagined seeing a theatre piece where the words were the end all and be all and adhered to verbatim. Yet, with GATZ the words were just this. So, when does the text allow for exploration by the actors and when does it cross that fine line of expression and becomes exploitive of the original text rather than expressive? This was the main flaw with this production. Was it interpreting the text or merely mocking it?
There was a great deal of time to ponder this during this lengthy production. Every genre of theatrical interpretation was touched upon at some point beginning with theatre in 5th Century B.C. with the Greeks up until this moment. None of this history seemed to be treated very thoughtfully in this production.
At no point did the actors provide a solid base in order to establish a rapport with their characters and therefore the audience. Initially, if this had been established, we would have felt included as the theatre’s “fourth wall”. With this, they could have taken us anywhere with them, and it would have been acceptable, although perhaps still incomprehensible.
This was a theatre event solely on the text and the actors’ acting choices. These actors chose to play “end result” rather than give us character development. There were stereotypical acting choices with some going against these well-known characters. When trying to capture and engage the audience, alienation is not usually the best approach. After feeling this alienation for about five hours, I mentioned to the woman seated next to me that possibly I’d had enough. She practically harrumphed in my face and responded angrily, “Well, I’m staying because I want to see how it ends.” Yikes. One of the best-known pieces of literature that is a staple for all Literature classes and she wanted to see how it was going to end? Or did she simply mean how they were going to end it. I just wanted to tell her “When the curtain goes down.”, but there wasn’t a curtain.
GATZ is not for the uninitiated in the realm of non-traditional theatre. To be an audience member for this production one should be open-minded and willing to always expect the unexpected. And lastly, just because the script for the production uses the literal text doesn’t mean you’re going to necessarily be given the usual interpretation. Just remember: no matter what happens on stage – that your final reaction is theirs for the asking but yours for the taking – when you leave – whether the curtain goes down or not.