Sunday, January 24, 2010

Gatz, or The Great Gatsby on stage

I took a bit of a theatre challenge this weekend: my partner and I attended a full performance of Gatz, a production by the Elevator Repair Service theatre troupe being staged at the American Reportory Theater in Cambridge, MA. As the A.R.T. describes it,
A theatrical tour de force, Gatz is conceived as a single six-hour production in which an ensemble of 13 actors bring to live every word of the novel with no text added and none removed. Gatz is a one-of-a-kind theatrical event defined by its radical commitment to one of the 20th century's greatest novels.
The "novel" in question? F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, of course! The only words spoken aloud on stage come from the book, and the main character on stage reads every word of the novel, except for some dialogue read by characters in character. Sadly, I cannot describe this in a way that does it justice. The conceit is not just a lark, just some gag. This performance is beautifully executed, managing to be laugh out loud funny one minute, moving the next, and entertaining and engrossing for a full 6 hours - yes, 6 hours. We arrived at 3 pm and left after 11pm, with 2 10+minute intermissions and one hour-long meal break. It was worth every minute.

First of all, I kept thinking of our sweet li'l blog here due to one particular aspect of the performance. Ya see, it's built around a grungy office. The narrator walks into the office, hits a light, and sits at his desk. He has a tragic old worn-out desktop computer, and it won't start. Again, remember that no words are spoken aloud that are not in the novel, so the actor does a Chaplin-like routine that will be familiar to any of us in the modern age - hit the on switch, hit a few F keys at the top of the keyboard, try some combinations. When nothing works, he picks up the novel and starts reading. Soon, his co-workers, who walk past him doing mundane office tasks, start embodying the characters. The broken computer returns throughout the play, never functioning, and we are grateful because a functioning computer would interrupt the story we're being told.

I love that, in conceiving of how to bring this novel to the stage, the creators of this performance opened with technology failing. I know this will sound reactionary, but I also know that those of us who love books deeply enjoy that moment when we shut the computer off, when we put the cellphone away, when the hum of the electrified appliances around us hushes and it's just us and the book, possibly a good lamp. (Hey, you can't throw it all out, right?) Don't get me wrong, I am no back-to-the-woods kind of guy. I spent the day after this day-long theatre production at an outlet mall. But I read to be solitary, and I take pleasure in how minimal an energy requirement is necessary for this activity. Call it "green" or call it "simple" or call it "retro," I just know the words work on the page, the page works as a way to bring me the story bit by bit (not byte by byte), and the book offers a generous but not demanding venue for me. We understand each other.

I also want to comment on this transition from book to stage in this production. It's flawless. I can't say enough about how enjoyable it was to see something brought to a whole new form of art without harming the original, but instead leaving the original with so much dignity. The book is there on stage, in the actor's hand, for the full 6+ hours. And the production plays with the words on the page: an actors spills coffee and it seems like a mistake, until the narrator reads, "Michaelis fumbled as a way to distract Joe." There is silence as the narrator and another actor stare at each other, then the actor speaks, and the narrator follows with, "He said, after a long pause." It's so goddam endearing to any book lover. They didn't ignore the words or mock the words or feel the need to capture each one with some precious touch. They played with the words, and the story, and the characters, with respect and intelligence.

This production gave me great hope, in some odd way, about the future of the book. It reminded me that people love these things, with their gradual storylines and delicately chosen words and chapters - to start intermission, the actor would look up and say, "That's the end of Chapter 3. We're going to take a 10 minute break." You never forgot it was a book first, and it left the audience with the stage company all on the same side - on the book's side, as we all show our support with this 6+ hour commitment.

In my day job, I'm dealing a lot with electronic scholarly communication - where it's going, what's needed, what's fair in terms of access and cost. And I'm often left reminding people that articles and books do not just happen magically due to the wonders of technology. The narrative had to be written and edited by the author and then pitched; the editor had to acquire the book and edit more; the copyeditor had to carefully read through each word and all the grammar; the designer had to catch breaks and set each page. Just because you can download a pdf of a monograph now with ease doesn't mean it didn't take great thought and labor to get to that point. The end is just not mindful of the means of getting there, and I worry what this will mean for books going forward. Just because we can grab a book off Amazon from our Kindles (no I don't have one! royal "our") in 30 seconds doesn't mean it came into being that easily.

Seeing this production was relief, at the core of things (and on top of that core was the simple enjoyment, as time breezed by in a way that was truly unexpected). It was a relief to see something come out of a book that salvaged the painstaking labor that goes into writing the thing. I can only hope that future uses of books and narratives manage to increasingly respect rather than denigrate that intellectual/creative labor.

Gatz! is coming to NYC next season, so folks in or near NYC, check it out! Boston folks, get tickets now!

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