OK, so ever since I first read about Elevator Repair Service's show GATZ wherein an office worker reads the entire text of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which leads to his co-workers acting out the book in their office setting, I thought: that sounds brilliant. I have wanted to see it for years and finally got my chance today at The Public Theater - all 6 1/2 hours of it.
I cannot say enough good things about the production itself or the brilliance of F. Scott Fitzgerald's book. I read it in high-school and loved it then (especially as a scholarship student at a boarding school, I could relate on a pretty visceral level to the Gatsby motif - the outsider who attempts to penetrate the inner sanctum of extreme wealth and privilege and finds himself thwarted in many ways small and large). On the off chance you don't know the book and want to see the production with little knowledge of the story, I won't go into too many details.
But here's the thing: Fitzgerald wrote perhaps a perfect book that works on the micro-personal level and that resonates even now close to 90 years later on a political-philosophical level. It has an almost mythical, tragic feel to it in the way it circles around and punctures with precision the illusory nature of the American Dream even for someone (Gatsby) who believes in it with all his heart and Almost achieves it, but then falls fatally short. The last lines of the book make it clear that Fitzgerald believes this is true always - the green light on the other side of the bay seeming tantalizingly close, but is forever out of reach.
Even more extraordinary is that each sentence is necessary and works on at least two if not more levels. Fitzgerald's words are meant to be read aloud (this becomes clear as you hear them read by the extraordinary Scott Shepherd - who reads the whole book night after night - that alone is amazing...). Apparently, Fitzgerald read his words aloud to himself as he wrote. The experience of hearing the whole book would bear this out.
The brilliance of ERS is that they decided to put this jazz age story in a contemporary, rather shabby looking office and populate the story with office workers. This environment adds another layer of metaphor onto an already metaphor-rich novel. It also keeps it from seeming nostalgic or dated in any way. Further, the office set itself is in a liminal state between modern and slightly old (like the office of an off-off Broadway theater company, say whose office is furnished by Materials for the Arts). The office worker who plays Gatsby (the amazing Jim Fletcher) types at an old-school typewriter. Nick (Shepherd) tries unsuccessfully to boot up his computer, which leads to his discovery of the book that he begins reading.
There is also a gradual trajectory over the 6 1/2 hours from a literal office environment in which the book is an intrusion and the reader is an office worker to a gradual clearing of the space - not entirely - it's still an office but much more spare - able to evoke possible other realities (due in no small part to the extraordinary lighting design of Mark Barton, the gorgeously subtle, evocative and visibly orchestrated sound design by performer/designer Ben Williams and the deceptively simple but quite ingenious set design of Louisa Thompson). By the end Shepherd transforms from a guy reading a book to the narrator himself, speaking directly to us, the audience. After spending 6 hours, the space we share becomes obvious, the sound of his voice and his presence is intimate. Fitzgerald's words resonate from 1925 to us in 2012 as a revelation all over again.
All of the actors are great. The decisions about when/how to create certain moments from the text (which I sense were created by the actors and directors in collaboration) are done in such a masterful way, sometimes before, simultaneous to or after the text. Sometimes carelessness is shown via a seeming accident with a drinking glass or throwing a large idea away is evoked by throwing a paper into a file cabinet. Something being distasteful shown as a literal distaste on the tongue or delays happening onstage after the mention of delay in the text. This does not take away from the feeling tone of the piece, though. While there is no direct play at 'being emotional' and we always know we are in a theater, this gives space for the audience to respond, as it did tonight, in a visceral way. They aren't having the emotions for us or trying to make us Feel anything, so we can.
ERS has been performing this piece since 2005 and it shows in the best possible way. The ensemble is tight, people work off of each other with turn on a dime precision. Many of the actors have been involved with ERS since its inception in 1992 and that shows, too. John Collins has built an astounding company and in this piece the whole company has created an extraordinary show.
I rarely use this many positive adjectives in any review or writing about a piece of theater. This was a privilege to experience. Tonight, we gave the show a standing ovation, which it richly deserved.
If you want a theatrical experience that will restore your faith in theater, the power of words and the ability to evoke tragedy without being in the least bit nostalgic or sentimental, this is your show.
Welcome to my blog..
"We struggle with dream figures and our blows fall on living faces." Maurice Merleau-Ponty
When I started this blog in 2011, I was in a time of transition in my life between many identities - that of Artistic Director of a company (Apocryphal Theatre) to independent writer/director/artist/teacher and also between family identity, as I discover a new family that my grandfather's name change at the request of his boss in WWII hid from view - a huge Hungarian-Slovak contingent I met in 2011. Please note in light of this the irony of the name of my recently-disbanded theatre company. This particular transition probably began in the one month period (Dec. 9, 2009-Jan. 7, 2010) in which I received a PhD, my 20 year old cat died on my father's birthday and then my father, who I barely knew, died too. I was with him when he died and nothing has been the same since. This blog is tracing the more conscious elements of this journey and attempt to fill in the blanks. I'm also writing a book about my grandmothers that features too. I'd be delighted if you joined me. (Please note if you are joining mid-route, that I assume knowledge of earlier posts in later posts, so it may be better to start at the beginning for the all singing, all dancing fun-fair ride.) In October 2011, I moved back NYC after living in London for 8 years and separated from my now ex-husband, which means unless you want your life upended entirely don't start a blog called Somewhere in Transition. In November 2011, I adopted a rescue cat named Ugo. He is lovely. As of January 2012, I began teaching an acting class at Hunter College, which is where one of my grandmothers received a scholarship to study acting, but her parents would not let her go. All things come round…I began to think it may be time to stop thinking of my life in transition when in June 2012 my stepfather Tom suddenly died. Now back in the U.S. for a bit, I notice, too, my writing is more overtly political, no longer concerned about being an expat opining about a country not my own. I moved to my own apartment in August 2012 and am a very happy resident of Inwood on the top tip of Manhattan where the skunks and the egrets roam in the last old growth forest on the island.
I am now transitioning into being married again with a new surname (Barclay-Morton). John is transitioning from Canada to NYC and as of June 2014 has a green card. So transition continues, but now from sad to happy, from loss to love...from a sense of alienation to a sense of being at home in the world.
As of September 2013 I started teaching writing (composition and rhetoric) as an adjunct professor at Fordham University, which I have discovered I love with an almost irrational passion. So blessed for the opportunity and hope to find a more permanent job doing same.
I worked full time on the book thanks to a successful crowd-funding campaign in May 2014 and completed it at two residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Wisdom House in summer 2015. I have done some revisions and am shopping it around to agents and publishers now, along with having written a rough draft of a new book and some other projects.
Not sure when transition ends, if it ever does. As the saying goes, the only difference between a sad ending and a happy ending is where you stop rolling the film.
For professional information, publications, etc., go to my linked in profile and website for Barclay Morton Editorial & Design. My Twitter account is @wilhelminapitfa. You can find me on Facebook under my full name Julia Lee Barclay-Morton. More about my grandmothers' book: The Amazing True Imaginary Autobiography of Dick & Jani