Thursday, February 6, 2014

ASF: "The Great Gatsby"

Simon Levy's compact and lyrical adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (the only authorized stage version) had its opening night audience absorbed for its full two acts and engaged in animated discussions on leaving the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Carolyn Blount Theatre.

Though Fitzgerald earned little money from it and thought his 1925 novel a failure, its depiction of the excesses of the 1920s Jazz Age and the desperate pursuit of "The American Dream" have been popularized by several films, an opera, and assorted spin-offs and secured its place on required reading lists as one of the great American novels. Almost a century after its composition, The Great Gatsby still resonates with readers who see 21st Century hedonism, glorification of celebrity and money, and disregard of ethnic minorities and the underclass as all too current.

Levy's script de-emphasizes the lavish spectacle of Jay Gatsby's celebrated parties in order to concentrate instead on the novel's characters and themes, and uses much of Fitzgerald's original dialogue and philosophical narrative to make his points. -- And director Geoffrey Sherman deftly guides his ensemble actors (some making debut performances on the ASF stage), allowing them to gradually reveal the private thoughts they so adroitly keep hidden through long-practiced guile and the belief that wealth puts people above any social or moral imperatives; problems can simply disappear if they are ignored, weak people can be ruthlessly used or trampled over, leaving the sophisticated people looking good...and that is all that matters.

Mystery-man Jay Gatsby [Anthony Marble] has built a mansion on Long Island's fictional West Egg, hoping to rekindle the love of golden girl Daisy Buchanan [Jenny Strassburg] who had married wealthy Tom Buchanan [Christian Ryan] when Gatsby had little money or social prospects. Tom carries on an affair with Myrtle Wilson [Paula Jon DeRose] whose husband George [Brik Berkes] runs a gas station situated in the "valley of ashes" between affluent Long Island and Manhattan, and overseen by an enigmatic billboard's startling image of all-seeing bespectacled eyes, an advertisement for Dr. T. J. Eckleburg.

Narrated by Nick Carraway [Bjorn Thorstad], Daisy's cousin who rents a cottage next door to Gatsby and is in New York to pursue a career in the bond business, he becomes a reluctant go-between for Gatsby and Daisy, and gets caught up in their glamorous lifestyle while pursuing a romance with golf star Jordan Baker [Alice Sherman].

Nick is the conscience of the story. He introduces us to Gatsby: the dreamer gazing at the green light on Daisy's dock across the bay from his home, the obsessive romantic despite his underworld connections who is convinced that Daisy will be attend one of his parties and love him as she once professed. -- As Nick comes to know people for who they are behind the masks: "careless people...they smashed up things...and let other people clean up the mess they had made...", he rejects the lifestyle that is so intoxicating.

Yes, these are weak people, no matter their material success. They invent stories to hide the truth. They cheat and steal. They tell outrageous lies. They get caught up in their own illusions. And they come to life on the ASF stage.

In a production that eschews the fussy spectacle that screen versions rely on -- James Wolk's sleek minimalist set, and Brenda Van Der Weil's period character-driven costumes, are each based on the novel's descriptions -- the attention to developing characters and conflicts is done without affectation.

The three "love" stories counterbalance one another. Daisy is caught in an unhappy marriage, but hides her pain in order to preserve the lifestyle she values most, and Ms. Strassburg's exclamation -- "God...I'm so sophisticated!" -- makes her dilemma very real: What is she to do? Be with Gatsby, or stay with Tom despite his infidelity and racist beliefs? Mr. Marble's Gatsby is both appealing and an enigma, and his doting on Daisy's whims and his blind belief in reviving a romanticized past doom their match from the start.

Tom's affair with Myrtle, based essentially on his physical and emotional dominance of a woman desperate to escape a lifeless marriage, is, in the hands of Mr. Ryan and Ms. DeRose, a steamy, argumentative battle of the sexes, with Ms. DeRose's voluptuous portrayal the key. -- Mr. Berkes as her husband is so distraught at his wife's behavior, and so downtrodden in demeanor, that his actions are thoroughly credible.

Ms. Sherman's enticing depiction of Jordan Baker is beguiling and amoral; a finely nuanced performance that is both attractive and troubling. It is no wonder that Nick is enthralled by her (much as Gatsby is by Daisy), nor is it surprising that he rejects her as she continues her destructive ways.

Supporting the main characters are ASF veterans Greta Lambert and Rodney Clark who play several characters apiece. Most remarkable are Mr. Clark's efficient and alarming depiction of Meyer Wolfsheim replete with cufflinks made of human molars, a gambler who appears to control much of Gatsby's finances, and Ms. Lambert's gossiping Mrs. McKee.

And it is up to Mr. Thorstad as Nick to bring the play to its close. His relationship with Gatsby grows from wonder and scorn for the excesses of Gatsby's life to admiration and a gradual recognition of Gatsby's "extraordinary gift for hope" no matter how everything conspires against him.