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.
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.