Review Roundup: Tell Me A Story

Gatz @ The Public Theater (reviewed March 25, 2012)
An Iliad @  New York Theatre Workshop (reviewed March 31, 2012)

Another catchup / catch-all review essay, inspired by attendance at the 2012 Lortel Awards May 6th and, honestly, the feeling that attention must be paid. During a busy last week of March 2012 before the wild ride of April 2012 got into full gear, theatre-going wise, I visited two shows that received tremendous acclaim this past season. Each of these is an intense commitment of focus and gentle story telling.  With no pyrotechnics, you commit for the ride with narrator or storyteller.  One production is a commitment, in addition, of a great deal of time — intermissions plural plus a dinner break. In both experiences, each moment is valued — regardless of sore rear end or stiff back.  Each presents a challenge to attend quietly and calmly and intensely and often passionately to a story told as stories have been told as long as human beings have existed.  And as reward one receives marvelous powerful inspirational revelation of our common humanity through these specific literary experiences.  Marvelous both.


(L-R) Victoria Vazquez, Jim Fletcher. Photo by Paula Court.

Elevator Repair Service‘s multi-hour gift to those who dream, to those who yearn, to those who are crushed by their memories and those who overcome them, to the familiar American story of personal reconstruction originally crafted by F. Scott Fitzgerald as The Great Gatsby returned to the Public Theater. Life from the ruins and gems on a stage.

All action for our six plus hours of playing time is in an office filled with aging nondescript Steelcase-sturdy furniture that becomes, with a shift of set piece arrangements or a new lighting scheme or a sound effect of a passing car a hotel room (as pictured here) or a cottage or a highway gas station or a mansion weekend house. Our narrator Nick (Scott Shepherd) and Jim (who we learn to be our Gatz as the action proceeds, Jim Fletcher) and several other characters are office mates then morph into the characters from Fitzgerald’s story of a 1920s renaissance man. Gatz who became Gatsby who made millions by some nefarious means and spends his life yearning for a lovely woman Daisy (Victoria Vazquez) who once got away. Class emerges through couples the self-indulgent rich pleasure seekers find in an area outside of New York City and the summer homes of the rich in “East Egg”, our proxy for one of the Hampton communities.

Nick narrates with almost every word of Fitzgerald’s original, sometimes handing the narration off to one of the other assembled actors (there are more than 10 roaming the stage at different times) and one or another of the office mates become various characters of the timeless office mate story or Fitzgerald’s story.  We are told as we live both the production’s office construct and Fitzgerald’s story of these slightly sad and distinctly adrift souls in the time between the World Wars.  Fitzgerald’s heyday captured and presented as a gift to us in the hands of the members of Elevator Repair Service.

An Iliad.

Stephen Spinella as poet.

Another kind of narrator works in An Iliad, crafted by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson from Homer‘s The Iliad translated by Robert Fagles. At New York Theatre Workshop for a short run that ended an extended run in early April, one actor and a bassist (Brian Ellingsen) tell a tale, sing a song, convey a version but not the version of a story that began as an entertainment told by traveling storytellers and was recorded by a poet Homer as a version of the people and events leading to and resulting from the Trojan War.

On another bare boned set just a few blocks from the Public Theater stage where Gatz played, with a stage stripped to the backstage walls, bricks and ghost lights and unused materials piled at the edges, one Poet (played in repertory by Denis O’Hare and Stephen Spinella, the latter for the performance I attended) tells our tale. With humor, as an individual, not merely reciting but embodying his story.  I am a person here, he tells us, emerging from upstage center wall in shadow and light, who has a story to share with you. A story of our shared humanity.

And in this busy winter and spring of openings and high-flying musicals and revivals of familiar dramas, these deliciously presented stories based on some of Western civilization’s best works provided important and resonant hours to lucky theatre-goers. I am now, as I was when I left these theatres some weeks ago, full of gratitude for these experiences.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 10, 2012)

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