What a lot of Western theater is often missing is a purpose beyond the box office. Often today, Western theater seeks to rake in profits from high-profile labels such as the recent Broadway productions of Mean Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants but, really, what do these shows add to the art form that is theater? There is a place for blockbuster theater — a place I enjoy just like I enjoy my Tom Cruise movies — but they are all forgettable. They do not inspire. They do not provide the cathartic moments great theater is capable of.
Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, which had its Middle East premier at the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center last weekend, is an experience: a feast of whole theater that will inspire my work decades from now. It is an eight-hour theatrical marathon, including two intermissions and a meal break, that stages the entire work of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, verbatim. One ordinary morning, an employee — Scott Shepherd — enters his run-down office to find that his computer is not working. Unable to work, he stumbles across a copy of The Great Gatsby and proceeds to read aloud. Slowly, the world of the office and the world of Gatsby merge together as the different employees become the characters of the novel. It is a celebration of theater, of novels, of reading and of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby — fitting then that the final performance on Sept. 24 was Fitzgerald’s 122nd birthday.
Gatz is a full day’s work, both in the sense of it being an eight-hour show and in that it consumes a full work day’s amount of mental capacity. You must engage with this show and it is exhausting, but exhausting in a way that a workout is — satisfying. The characters are beautifully crafted, the office personas and Gatsby personas matching perfectly. It’s an homage to our reading experience, as Shepherd’s character projects the real people of his life as the characters he is reading, creating the world out of his own experience and memories. Director John Collins has devised a journey for Shepherd’s character in which the audience can’t help but join. The world of the book and the world of the play exist in tandem. As he reads, the world of the office falls away in his imagination just as the audience’s world likewise falls away.
Together we are sucked into our respective stories, which are really the same story, until suddenly, we find that Shepherd is reading directly to us, off book. It is a profound surprise — a surprise we were expecting.
Despite my wholehearted love and praise for this show, however, I hold some reservations. There are moments in Gatz which I find forced — engineered comedic moments which counter the tone of the scene. I might produce a half-hearted laugh but really, I would prefer not to watch Nick Carraway hide behind a book and wink to the audience, or to watch a piano player sing an elegant song like a clown. The slapstick comedy does not work. I do not want to be ripped out of the novel and be reminded I am an audience member watching a performance — which in that moment made me cringe. The beauty of this show is that it slowly sucks you in with its duration and you settle into its rhythm. These forced comedic moments go against that grain.
Having said that, Gatz is a masterpiece of contemporary theater and while its length may put some people off, its challenge to the theatrical form places it as one of the few culturally significant works of the decade. Gatz is like a Thanksgiving dinner: it lasts all day and you overstuff yourself until you collapse and have the best nap of the year. It is a communal event that will stand the test of time.
Ethan David is Video Editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.