Gatz at Berkeley Rep is surprising, compelling theater

Most pre-show hype about Gatz, the roughly six-hour production performed in a special presentation Feb. 13 – Mar. 1 by Elevator Repair Service at Berkeley Rep, is all about its marathon length.

It shouldn’t be, because unlike a 50-minute high school English class discussion of The Great Gatsby that can feel like six hours, this mesmerizing play delivers six hours of drama that audiences say feels as if mere minutes have passed. Tellingly, critics agree that acclimation happens swiftly during the first two-hour section, “Chapters 1-3” after which time stands still as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1925 novel springs to captivating life and surprising contemporary relevancy.

Remarkably, every word of the original narrative is read or performed onstage. While epic in scale, the play’s premise is simple. An unnamed office worker, bored while waiting for IT to jumpstart his computer, picks up a copy of Gatsby and begins to read. Gradually, he takes on the character of the novel’s first-person narrator and moral center, Nick Carraway. Soon enough, his co-workers join the vortex, morphing into the book’s primary characters; Daisy and her husband, Tom Buchanan, Jordan Baker, and eventually, Jay Gatsby (born James Gatz) himself.

Arguably, and not to downplay the considerable talents of the 13-member cast, prose is the true star of the show. The strength of Fitzgerald’s writing gains from close attention: humorous and sometimes incandescent language, keen pacing that builds in excitement even as the story plunges into a gloom-and-doom romantic tale, highly memorable and emotional use of visual imagery — that green light at the end of Daisy’s dock — and the way the storytelling holds readers spellbound within a slice of American life. As wordy as it may be, we don’t want the novel Gatsby to end, or at least, not end as it does.

Elevator Repair Service premiered the show in 2018. It went on to win two Lucille Lortel Awards, three Elliott Norton Awards, and an Obie Award. The New York-based ensemble’s immersive, approximately two-year development process includes multiple intensive one-month work cycles and in-progress showings.

The production’s 2 p.m. start time, two 15-minute intermissions during each half of the show, and a two-hour dinner break give audiences plenty of time for a snack or to grab a meal at one of downtown Berkeley’s terrific restaurants and stoke the engines for Part Two of Gatz.

Created and performed by Elevator Repair Service, Text: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Directed by John Collins, Roda Theatre · February 13-March 1, 2020. Tickets here.

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