Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule (updated)

Also see Patrick's reviews of The SpongeBob Musical and The Children

Scott Shepherd, center, and Cast
Photo by Ian Douglas
Spoiler alert: if you were one of the approximately 17 people in the United States who weren't required to read F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece "The Great Gatsby" /i> at some point during your high school or college years and plan to see Gatz, the staged reading/performance of the novel currently on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Roda Theatre (in a production by New York theatre company Elevator Repair Service), you might want to avoid the next paragraph.

Jay Gatsby is a fraud. For, despite his enviable Jazz Age lifestyle—tailored suits, motor cars, yachts, regular parties at a Long Island mansion flowing with bootlegged liquor and attended by movie stars—and claims of a well-to-do Midwestern family who all died, leaving him a fortune, he turns out to be nothing more than a common bootlegger obsessed with a pretty girl. I tell you this in confessorial mode, for I too (like most humans) occasionally feel like a fraud. Especially in my work as a reviewer. I have no master's degree in theatre, or even in literature. In fact, I have no master's degree at all. (I did manage a BA.) What I do have is an insatiable curiosity, a love of stories, a passion for artistic endeavors, decades of theatergoing, and a wealth of strong (but weakly held) opinions. But there have been many times when I attended critically acclaimed shows and left the theater thinking "what did I miss?" And there have been many instances when I have read reviews from fellow critics and thought, "why didn't I notice that?" Or "She got to the heart of that show so much more clearly than I did."

Last night—actually, most of yesterday, since I was at the theatre from 2:00 until 10:45, including six hours of the show plus a dinner break—that unfortunate feeling returned as I watched the majority of the audience erupt into a standing ovation when Scott Shepherd (who plays the book's narrator, Nick Carraway) read the last line of the novel ("So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.") and closed the book, and as I remembered some of the quotes being used to market the show: "revelatory," "mesmerizing," "time remarkably well spent." What did I not experience that others did?

Gatz, if you are not familiar with the show, is a performed reading of the entire text of Fitzgerald's novel (hence the six-hour running time), all of which takes place in an excessively nondescript office space (as usual, wonderfully realized by set designer Louisa Thompson and the crew at Berkeley Rep), with a cast of 13 playing all the different roles: Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, and the other inhabitants of East and West Egg. As with San Francisco's own Word for Word Performing Arts Company, which stages short stories as theatrical events, every single word, including every "he said" or "she said," is spoken on stage.

But unlike the almost uniformly excellent productions staged by Word for Word, the bland setting and oddly pedestrian approach of Elevator Repair Company (a bored office worker reading at his desk) lacks the depth of interpretation that I so love about Word for Word. As I said in a review of one of their productions, "Word for Word is able to manifest dimensions of the story that might not reveal themselves to a casual—or even dedicated—reader. For even the most committed and passionate consumer of short fiction can bring only their point of view and their sensibilities to a story. But with Word for Word, we are treated to the interpretation of an entire cast (and directors) who, in collaboration, illuminate aspects of story and character in ways any single reader of a story cannot. Lines that might read as flat on the page come alive when performers make the effort to unearth the emotion behind those lines, and wring the sadness, the joy, the bitterness out for us so that we can experience those emotions more completely and honestly."

There are lines and phrases in "The Great Gatsby" that are some of the most lovely ever written: "ahead lay the scalloped ocean and the abounding blessed isles," "the blue smoke of brittle leaves," "the corrugated surface of the Sound." On the page, they are astounding in their beauty. They are lovely here, too, when spoken by the skilled cast, but I never got a sense of their importance to the character speaking the words, despite their inherent elegance. And despite the fact that the reader playing Nick does ultimately leave his desk and the action becomes more theatrical, I failed to be moved.

Despite the top-notch production values we've come to expect from Berkeley Rep (the sound, by Ben Jalosa Williams, is at times subtle, at times thrilling, but always excellent and in service of the story), and the brilliance of Fitzgerald's text, on the whole, I'd rather re-read the novel, the better to savor Fitzgerald's elegant and precise prose.

Gatz runs through March 2, 2020, in the Roda Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Friday-Sunday at 2:00 p.m., with the second half beginning at 7:30 p.m. There is an additional show on Thursday, February 20. Tickets range from $37.50-$125. For tickets and information, please visit, or call the box office at 510-647-2949.