The Great Gatsby: The Classical Theatre Project

By Ryan Oakley

I didn’t expect much from Classical Theatre Project’s interpretation of “The Great Gatsby.” I only hoped for good-looking actors clothed in high style. My hopes were low and they were wrong. The costumes were merely adequate and I was irritated by the length of Gatsby’s jacket sleeves throughout. But the play was well-executed by both cast and crew. More importantly, it made the right choices.

Writer/director David Rotenberg’s best decision was to keep Fitzgerald’s prose; largely untouched and always present. The play is something like an experimental book-reading.

Three actors, two male and one female, play the protagonist Nick, and effortlessly switch between interior monologue to exterior interaction. They’re simultaneously present on stage, relating Fitzgerald’s writing as conversation with each other and/or the audience.

It sounds creative and I loathe creativity. But, unlike most forays into invention-land, this one serves a purpose. Like Rotenberg’s deft injection of occasional and effective comedy, this device makes the whole play more interesting and comprehensible; the experience more enjoyable and the actors that much more engaging.

Through these three actors, we see Nick’s reasoning –his thoughts and feelings and sense of life—even as they take turns interacting with the other characters. We are placed within his head and view the events just as he does. Nick is visible to us but, vitally, we also see his invisibility to the people around him.

Most importantly, the play avoids dull narration while leaving Fitzgerald’s brutally delicate prose intact. Without that, the whole thing would have fallen apart.

I’ve read “The Great Gatsby” three times and still have no idea what the book is about. Fitzgerald’s writing is so immaculately clear and sensual that it distracts me from the content. Reading that novel, I smell the desperate sweat of jazz cacophonies, taste lonely gin in unbearable heat and have no idea what is happening, has happened or is about to happen. Nor do I care.

And I’m not alone in this. Before the play, I had asked my date, Danielle Meder, what “The Great Gatsby” was about and she said it was about style and class in a very Ralph Lauren world. I already knew it was about Protestants but what is the story? She shrugged.

It doesn’t actually matter.

When this prose is placed in the service of a play (even one with a set that Danielle described as looking like Home Depot) it once again proves its ability to conjure images and feelings, to transport us to 1920s Long Island while changing the way we look at the world. Rotenberg is a smart enough writer/director to know that he cannot improve upon Fitzgerald. He doesn’t try. He simply interprets and adapts. Thank God.

The actors – a class of people I usually object to— are all magnetic without being hams; their talent evinced by the effortlessness of their words and their ever-changing physical presence. Most play a variety of roles and they all do so with self-aware aplomb that could easily become heavy-handed but never does. They’re capable and quietly effective.

That is rare.

Though I liked all three Nicks, I was most impressed by Stephanie Belding, who sings well, acts better and even looks good in jeans – a feat I had believed improbable in real life and impossible during “The Great Gatsby.”

Ingrid Bleckys, who plays Daisy, fills her voice with money while Mark Wiebe, offers an understated, earnest Gatsby, who remains properly enigmatic. This could not have been easy to accomplish, especially in an ill-fitting suit that renders his cuffs utterly invisible. This is an especially inappropriate flaw because it looks like Gatsby borrowed his clothes from his father. If Gatsby’s shirt is indicative of his collection, Daisy never would have cried into them about how beautiful they were.

Wisely, that scene was removed from the play if not from my head.

With some more money and a capable tailor thrown at Gatsby’s suits, this would be an excellent interpretation of a masterpiece. As it is, the play is simply very good and well-worth seeing. It is clever, fun and emotional. Like Gatsby himself, it is a light and heavy affair, floating atop of and anchored by Fitzgerald’s prose, beating on, boats against the current, ceaselessly into the past.

And all that sort of jazz.


The Great Gatsby” is playing until Nov. 1 at the Lower Ossington Theatre.  100A Ossington Ave. Toronto.  Two blocks North of Queen West.

Performances at 8 pm.

Tickets cost $29 for general admission; $16 for student and senior.

For tickets:  Call 416-882-4287 or go to Classical Theatre Project.

5 thoughts on “The Great Gatsby: The Classical Theatre Project”

  1. Worst. Review. Ever.

    Seriously. To attack a small company for not having a big costume budget is pathetic.

    And who cares what Danielle thinks anyway.

    And it is Home DEPOT.

  2. @DM – I’m sorry the review bothered you. All of the writers in the publication represent their own opinions. Although I’m the editor, I try and keep posts largely intact and true to what the writer has submitted. That means that I can’t really speak from a position of authority on any one review (well, unless it’s one of mine) but I do still want to address your comment.

    As I said, I can’t speak for Ryan, but I can tell you about my reading of the piece. I think that the commentary on the costumes was tongue-in-cheek. The review was ultimately a good one, with a recommendation for people to go and see the piece.

    I’m sorry to hear that the comment on the costumes offended you, but I also stand behind a reviewers right to point out what they like and don’t like. If the costumes bother someone, then it doesn’t matter what size the company is, they can still write about it. These reviews are based on the experience of the reviewer, there is no sliding-scale that says if it’s a Mirvish production it’s these expectations, and if it’s a tiny production there is another set of expectations. Just because you don’t have the funding for something doesn’t mean you can’t take the time to make sure that the choices you’re making on stage are appropriate for the piece, even if you do with you had more money and resources to do more with it.

    In this case, it doesn’t mean that the costumes will bother anyone else, it doesn’t even mean that they made the wrong choices, it just means that the costumes weren’t right for Ryan. They may, or may not, be right for other people.

    A reviewers opinion is just that, opinion, there are no absolutes here, there is just what that person enjoyed and didn’t enjoy. The hope with the review is that it gives people enough of a picture of the play to know whether or not it might be something they like – regardless of whether or not the reviewer liked it.

    As for what Danielle thinks – I care. One of the things that I ask my writers to do is bring someone along with them to a show, and incorporate that persons thoughts into the review – so that each review contains the opinions of two people. Sometimes the opinions are the same, sometimes they are different, but I’m a big believer that the more voices we can get into this, the more able we are to get a picture of the show. So, I’m sorry that you don’t like the inclusion of a second person’s opinion in the reviews, but that practice will be ongoing.

    And, the Home Depot typo (Home Depo) – thanks for pointing that out. I dropped the ball on the proofreading there. I have fixed it.

    Please feel free to email me if you have further concerns, I would be happy to talk to you about them, I am always interested in hearing the opinions of readers.


  3. Hi,

    Ryan and I both enjoyed the play and the small things that bothered us we agreed were fairly inconsequential. I thought that perhaps instead of a half-hearted attempt to approximate period dress, perhaps a more symbolic, creative solution (like the hanging light fixtures did for the staging) could have worked really well in the spirit of the play. Coming from a fashion background, the clothes are a big part of the story in The Great Gatsby and I just felt that a little more inventiveness in that area would have made a very good play into a remarkable one.

  4. Also, compared to other reviews of this play I have read, Ryan’s was very thoughtful and even positive, I think it does a good service to the production and the potential audience.

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