Elevator Repair Service

ERS Services Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”

For a book that’s mostly about drinking and eating, it’s no surprise that Elevator Repair Service chose to set their 3 1/2 hour staging of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in a bar, and named it after the Café Select, the watering hole Hemingway’s emasculated doppelgänger Jake Barnes and his expat circle frequent. Probably due to technical considerations, most of the eating was cut in this ArtsEmerson production that brought ERS back to Boston following their local premiere last year at the A.R.T. with Gatz–a full text reading/play of The Great Gatsby. (The Select isn’t quite the whole book, but the bulk of it is there and with a lot more dialog than Fitzgerald provided.) But, The Select lost something in the vast space of the Paramount Theatre, compared to the more intimate Loeb which complemented Gatz‘s delicate beginning and quality of being a reading. The actors were miked and the Paramount’s sound left much to be desired. I suppose people who go see large scale musicals like Mary Poppins are used to taking their theater through a pair of speakers, but I prefer the (particularly directional) nuance of speech that only an unamplified cast can provide.

The Select isn’t as resourceful as its predecessor. There is nothing here to mirror the transformation of a shabby office to Fitzgerald’s East and West Egg, or an on-stage sound guy that jumps up from his laptop to play an elevator boy. But then, it isn’t as reliant on such gimmicks. In fact, ERS spends a lot of time parodying themselves. The set’s folding tables stand in for beds, bars all over Europe, the stands at a bullfight, and when they represent the fish Jake and Bill catch on their fishing trip, two miniature tables are brought out to represent Jake’s catch (as if his masculinity wasn’t already threatened enough). Sound cues like the sound of liquor pouring into a glass often deliberately outlast the actions they’re meant to accompany. ERS has teased out a lot of humor from the book in this way, but I’m afraid it might be too soon for them to descend into self-parody. I wish they had taken themselves a little more seriously and spent more time exploring the novel’s subtext rather than seeking laughs.

Elevator Repair Service The Select Sun Also Rises

Mike Iveson (as Jake), Frank Boyd (as Harris), and Ben Williams (as Bill) (Mark Barton at Edinburgh)

Most of these laughs went to Ben Williams (Bill), who also worked on the sound here and for Gatz. Whether or not it’s comic, ERS’s epic shows require epic sound design and Bill’s technical ability is only matched by his comic talent. Entering late in the play (and the novel), he’s something of a comic relief to Cohn’s (Matt Tierney) desperate doting over Brett, Brett’s (Lucy Taylor) thinly veiled emptiness, and Jake’s (Mike Ivenon) nocturnal melancholy. He performed much like a stand-up comic might, acting out a slapstick fishing scene and even delivering a funny story into a 1940s microphone as if he’s performing within the play. Comparatively, Mike Ivenon’s Jake is more hard boiled, but he didn’t quite ooze the machismo Hemingway wrote into his anti-hero. Too bad, because I think that proud chauvinism is here, more than anywhere else in Hemingway’s oeuvre, essential. Otherwise, Jake’s war injury doesn’t have the significance the novel gives it.

The Select strobes between lively storytelling and the stilted, paired-down narration one would expect from a reading of Hemingway (and which I prefer), just as it switches from silly comedy to dark sadness. If I’m going to sit there for 3 1/2 hours listening to the book aloud, I would have preferred something with more direction in its engagement with the text. Technically, ERS has stepped it up from Gatz. The music and blocking were fantastic, conjuring well the cosmos of the novel on stage–which I suppose is the whole point to these literary-theatrical experiments. Lucy Taylor’s Brett was outstanding in its soft balance of charm, idiosyncrasy, and sadness. As was Susie Sokol’s Pedro Romero, in its boyish but confident naiveté. Fully costumed (in contrast to the hipster but vaguely period garb of the rest of the cast), she mimed elaborate performances of the bull fights as Iveson narrated them like a sports announcer. I hope we get to see ERS in Boston next year with another American classic under their arm.

Elevator Repair Service Reads “Gatsby” Part 2

A late follow-up to my earlier post on the play.

Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz continues at the ART through February 7th (tickets $20-75 per part), though it’s clearly not as successful as Sleep No More, which is impossible to get tickets to any more unless (I hear) you make a nice little membership donation, or The Donkey Show, for which people are still lining up at Zero Arrow for. As far as productions actually at the Loeb go, the unfortunate (but somewhat expected) bomb that was Best of Both Worlds might’ve sold less tickets, but Gatz doesn’t seem to be generating the local audience it deserves, much less one that matches the hype. My girlfriend attended Part 2 last Friday and reported slim attendance. I’m figuring it’s Gatz‘s duration that’s scaring people away even if it is, as I said in my last post, its greatest strength.

As much as I liked the show, particularly through the last hour or two, it does have a lot of cheap meta-humor that resembles the lesser jokes of an episode of 30 Rock. I’ll provide a few examples, mostly from Part 1, where the text is basically mocked, not in order to convey anything, but, it would seem, to force a few laughs out of the audience (who also thought it was funny that Wolfshiem’s “business” was named the “Swastika Holding Company,” remember the book came out in 1925) to break up the monotony.

“Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction” → Nick, in an emphasized gesture, turns to the cover to check if it indeed says “Gatsby” on it.

“Father agreed to finance me for a year and after various delays” → The office phone rings.

“They knew that presently dinner would be over and a little later the evening too would be over and casually put away.” → A piece of paper is put (away) into a filing cabinet.

“He was a son of God–a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that” → Nick shrugs, not understanding what Fitzgerald or the phrase means.

“Sometimes in the course of gay parties women used to rub champagne into his hair” → Jim Fletcher (playing Gatsby) is bald.

“”Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy.” → The elevator boy (played by the sound guy who handles the sound on-stage and plays about a dozen small roles) tells his passengers to keep their hands off his laptop.

“”All right, I’ll tell him.” Abruptly he slammed the door.” → The butler (again the sound guy) presses a button on his laptop triggering a sound effect of a door slamming.

Scott Shepherd (as Nick), Susie Sokol (as Jordan), Tory Vazquez (as Daisy), Jim Fletcher (as Gatsby). (Gene Pittman)

Scott Shepherd (as Nick), Susie Sokol (as Jordan), Tory Vazquez (as Daisy), Jim Fletcher (as Gatsby). (Gene Pittman)

It’s been a while since I saw it and all six hours is a lot to take in and process, but I do have some general impressions to relate. Jordan (Suzie Sokol for the performance I saw, but three actresses through the run) seemed a comic exaggeration of herself. She seemed out of place in both the settings of Gatz and Gatsby, though this is not necessarily fault of the actress(es), but rather Elevator Repair Service’s reading of the character.

If you don’t remember from high school, Jordan and Nick’s romance develops largely between the lines of the novel, as the book isn’t really about Nick and his girl, but Gatsby and his. ERS cleverly stages Fitzgerald’s mostly impressioned romance by having Jordan appear on stage next to Nick more and more as the play progresses, even if she’s not involved in the passage Nick happens to be reading. Jordan herself reads the passage from Chapter 3, where she relates to Nick Daisy and Gatsby’s failed romance and her wedding to Tom, another smart touch that effectively stages the shift in narration and the burgeoning intimacy between Nick and Jordan.

Gatsby is so popular and accessible because it is a page turner. Fitzgerald withholds most of the facts (if we can in fact rely on our narrator) of who Gatsby is until Chapter 6, more than halfway through the novel. Up until then, Gatsby is a mystery and the primary object of a reader’s “desire to know.” ERS conveys Fitzgerald’s sense of mystery by having Gatsby float on and off stage from the beginning of the play, before the character actually enters the narrative–just as Fitzgerald drops his name from the get-go without telling us who he is.

Chapter Two’s New York apartment party, where Nick tags along with Tom and Myrtle, is probably the most elegantly staged scene of the play and deservingly so, because it’s one of the book’s best parts and the only look we get at Myrtle’s true colors. With just some music, a few chairs pulled together, and a couple of liquor bottles and glasses that appear out of a filing cabinet, ERS and director John Collins covey the passage’s utter sense of drunken chaos, with Myrtle mumbling to herself. For me, here, ERS surpassed the novel. The second New York (failed) party scene in the Plaza Hotel just before the car accident (pictured above), is not pulled off quite as well, but it’s certainly striking to look at and is a theatrical tableau of the highest merit. Too often local productions slack on their purely visual elements.

Laurena Allan (as Myrtle), Scott Shepherd (as Nick), and Annie McNamara (as Catherine). (Gene Pittman)

Laurena Allan (as Myrtle), Scott Shepherd (as Nick), and Annie McNamara (as Catherine). (Gene Pittman)

About a quarter of Louisa Thompson’s set, that’s actually a little small for the Loeb stage, holds nothing more than two or so rows of steel shelving stuffed with papers and file boxes. It’s actually one of the more elaborate prop/set pieces of the entire production and functions more as a metaphor to Gatz‘s narration and narrator than a component of the shabby office that doubles as the novel’s settings.

There are a number of narrative hiccups in The Great Gatsby. Portions of the novel’s chronology don’t quite add up and when Nick asks Gatsby “What part of the middle-west?” he’s from, Gatsby replies “San Francisco.” Some attribute these chronological and geographical errors to Fitzgerald’s laborious process of re-writing and the fact that he lived abroad while writing much of the book. Others think they were intentionally inserted by Fitzgerald to signal to his more meticulous readers that Nick’s narration is, at least in part, unreliable. Even though I’m not crazy about Fitzgerald, I’m in the second school, and I think ERS is as well. The jumbled, unorganized files articulate this unreliability, this sense of disorder. The Jazz Age tragedy which Nick recounts is manifested here in these records that, given their dishevelled state, aren’t a complete (or completely accurate) record.

The 100 most used words in The Great Gatsby:

created at TagCrowd.com

Elevator Repair Service Reads “Gatsby” Part 1

Elevator Repair Service‘s Gatz (@ the American Rep through Feb. 7) at six hours (not counting the breaks and intermissions) is marathon theater. Even if you do all ten hours of the Boston Theater Marathon, this is something entirely different. It takes the patience of an ardent reader, or at least someone set on getting their hundred bucks worth, to listen to someone read a book all day, especially a book where you already know what happens. But, for those that stick around, and Gatz only works if you see both parts, it offers that unique pleasure inherent to the novel, that has so much to do with the duration of the narrative.

There’s nothing like finishing a good book that you’ve been committed to for hours or days or weeks and it’s a completely different feeling than that which comes at the end of the shorter narratives of plays and films. Aside from offering resolution, the final chapter of a (good) novel engenders a feeling of contentment, satisfaction, and peace–a moment of nirvana that validates the time you’ve put into this text. A Dan Brown book, like a television movie, might sufficiently tease our desire to know to force us from one chapter into the next (or through commercial breaks), but it takes a book like The Great Gatsby to bring us to a satisfying melancholic awe during and following its final lines.

Once the full-text recitation of Gatz reaches chapter 9, our narrator Nick (Scott Shepherd) puts down his paperback and relaxes into the confident and vaguely Western-accented voice that he slowly builds towards throughout the entire play. He recites the final chapter of Gatsby with ease–to think that in chapter one he intentionally stumbled over “Dukes of Buccleuch.” It rolls of his tongue as he faces us, and speaks to us, without the book below his eyes for the first time. Chapter 9 is one of the most meticulously contrived chapters in the book and, even though it’s not, it feels like a eulogy to the character whose mysterious identity is what makes the book such a page-turner, and thus so accessible and popular. Shepherd narrates it with a solemn elegance that’s not just apt to Fitzgerald’s prose and subject matter, but also to the process of reading, or finishing, a book. What Gatz does so superbly, is translate the act of reading to the stage, taking an inner process and experience and making it a shared and performed one.

This season we’ve seen the ART do more “immersive” theater, where we’re thrown into nontheater settings so that we might have more unique and “fun” theatrical experiences, but this is the first one, despite its epic duration, that turns the volume down and works to extract and transfer an inner relationship we all have with the novel. Rather than attempt a large exterior theatrical experience (e.g. the party of the The Donkey Show, the active puzzle of Sleep No More), it reaches for a deeply personal interior experience that’s not usually activated inside of a theater. The final chapter of Gatz is worth all six hours and more flawless than anything in Shakespeare Exploded, because having that moment of completing a novel at a play, in a theater, is something special and different.

Of course, there is some lag leading up to those compelling final scenes that force one to a standing ovation. The play builds upon its self slowly and while Fitzgerald’s language may offer rewards to those who pick up the book and read a passage or two, Gatz doesn’t, even if you know the text as well as Scott Shepherd. Stay tuned for part two.

Read part 2 of the review.

Scott Shepherd (as Nick) and Kate Scelsa (as Lucille). (Chris Beirens)

Scott Shepherd (as Nick) and Kate Scelsa (as Lucille). (Chris Beirens)