Raise your hand if you read “The Great Gatsby” in high school or college. It’s widely held up as a perfectly-crafted “holy writ” of American literature.
The American Repertory Theater is hosting an experiment in Cambridge called “Gatz,” an unedited staging of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s entire famous novel. Word-for-word, cover-to-cover, the production clocks in at six-and-a-half hours.
So what better test for this production than dragging someone along who worships the book but has an aversion to theater?
“Just the experience of sitting in a theater chair puts me on edge,” admits Michael Lowenthal, a Boston novelist, teacher, “Gatsby” fan — and now my literary guinea pig. “So I haven’t been to the theater very much at all in the past few years, my mother would be very upset to hear me admit.”
Lowenthal agreed to relinquish a day of his life to come see the marathon staging of “Gatz” with me. He read “The Great Gatsby” in one sitting as a college student, and adores its opening lines and meditation on the American dream. So it makes sense that he comes to this lengthy exercise with a healthy dose of skepticism.
“Why come here and see these people do this thing when we could just read the book at home?” he asked. “Or we could even listen to it as a book on tape. And if they aren’t going to change any of the words at all or delete any words, what else could they do? What could they add? It doesn’t necessarily strike me as a recipe for success.”
John Collins, the director, explained why he and his Brooklyn-based experimental theater company came up with this radical concept: “This idea that we would make it a play that would be a new version of ‘The Great Gatsby,’ not that would be our condensed interpretation of the story, but that we would make a play about somebody reading this book.”
Not that Collins and his peers didn’t try to condense it. They did. Even after being warned that the novel was “unadaptable.”
But, Collins said, “we just kept finding that everything seemed necessary. So we thought: Well here’s a great crazy idea to start with, here’s a great crazy project, here’s a great impossible task — we’ll do every single word of it.”
Every single world of the narration is read by actor Scott Shepherd, starting with the first page.
“In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since,” Shepherd says in his opening lines. “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
On stage, “Gatz” starts off pretty straight. Shepherd plays a guy in a drab office. He sits down at his computer, but it’s broken. So he picks up a well-worn copy of the book and starts reading it aloud.
It doesn’t take long for things to turn strange. Co-workers wander on and off stage — an assistant, a janitor, a man in a suit. The lines between the narration and the action begin to blur. It’s as if the book is coming to life. Then, the janitor blurts out a line of dialogue from “Gatsby” character Tom Buchanan.
“Civilization’s going to pieces!”
And so it goes, ramping up, getting more surreal. While “Gatz” stays true to the words, it takes liberties with every prop, sound effect and stretch of the imagination.
Michael Lowenthal, my literary guinea pig, looked like he was buying into the production. Hour after hour he held up pretty well, but he wondered about Scott Shepherd, the actor reading the narration. We sat in our seats for hours, but Shepherd is on stage the whole time: six-and-a-half hours, plus the three breaks.
The actor has a strategy, though. Shepherd said he approaches the event like a football game.
“The first quarter I come on with a cup of coffee, so that’s cool,” he explained. “Towards the end of the second quarter we have a meal, and I eat a Powerbar, so that gets me through No. 2. No. 3 is the long desert where there’s no stimulant built into part three, but if you can make it through part three, then part four you get to smoke a cigarette and a cigar.”
After nearly eight hours together — including a dinner break — my test subject looked both beaten down and satisfied. For him, the written word reigned supreme and he came out seeing “Gatz” both as a cool way to experience the novel and a victory for F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“The funny thing is, you know, Fitzgerald was a failed playwright, and most people think he was a failed screenwriter when he did his Hollywood period,” Lowenthal said. “And actually I think that his project right before ‘Gatsby’ was a play that opened and flopped, and so it was so amazing to see that his novel works as a piece of theater but perhaps only because it was untouched.”
Lowenthal also admitted there was something primal and novel about being read to in a theater along with hundreds of other people. After all, the act of reading is usually a solitary one.
But be warned: If you choose to take part in this experiment yourself, allot some recovery time. I’ll admit my backside is still a little sore.