Underneath a gleaming yellow light, Nick Carraway, played by Gavin Buckley, stands and delivers the opening lines to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Among the unmoving statues of the cast draped in shadows, caught in their dance and frozen in time, he says, “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
It’s clear as Nick speaks to the audience that this story is not simply about Gatsby, despite him being the man who gives his name to this story. Maybe that should be clear in the handful of stage, ballet, television, radio, opera and film adaptations of the 1925 Great American Novel, but it’s never been more apparent than in the opening scene for Theatrikos’ production of The Great Gatsby which premiered at the Doris Harper-White Community Playhouse on Oct. 5.
Directed by Virginia Brown and Linda Sutera, and adapted for the stage by award-winning playwright Simon Levy, The Great Gatsby is charming and unexpected, giving us a new, more focused look at the tragedy of lost youth, time and love in Fitzgerald’s masterpiece.
Throughout the play, Nick addresses the audience and each time his asides feel more disturbed and critical of Gatsby (Stephen Root), Daisy (Amelia Swann), greed and money. At first Nick is delighted by the illustrious lives of those around his West Egg house, finding companionship in the confident and disarming, albeit cynical, Jordan Baker (Paige Latendresse), flying planes with Gatsby and drinking to excess during a warm afternoon.
Despite Tom Buchanan (Bryan Shea) physically abusing his mistress Myrtle Wilson (Amanda DeLano), Nick looks dazedly at the audience and says, “I began to like New York.” As quickly as Nick forgets about the physical violence that occurred before him, we do as well. That moment, which should represent the turn of Nick’s character and the precipice for his disdain toward the characters around him, almost becomes laughable. As Myrtle hit the ground after having her nose broken by Tom, a meek laughter arose from the audience, and the gravity of that scene seemed to fall away.
Brown and Sutera take brave leaps to add comedy to their production of The Great Gatsby, and plenty of moments work because of it. This, however, was not one. And this happens a few times throughout the play, where comedy undercuts the tone of its source material which is a rather serious portrayal of lost love, wealth, possession and social anomies.
Root’s portrayal of the titular Jay Gatsby is both awkward and affable. Even before meeting him, we know—or think we know—so much about Gatsby, and when we finally meet him, we’re left somewhat stunned by his schoolboy obsession with Daisy, his need to show off his home, his medals, his planes and all of his possessions, his need to say “Goodbye, old sport” more than once to Nick and his flappable composure in just about every situation he finds himself in. It’s funny, charming and a bit distracting. And maybe Root’s portrayal is aimed at deconstructing a character who, by his very nature, is somewhat disturbed and jaded in his belief that his possessions will save him from the weight of the passage of time, forever in the limbo of his youth, but it doesn’t quite seem that complex.
Other performances, such as Buckley’s Nick Carraway, Swann’s portrayal of a desperate Daisy and Latendresse’s take on Jordan Baker, ground the play in the tangible, human interactions of this lavish world, how the larger ideas of wealth and dishonesty have an effect on those who inhabit it.
Adding to that, the production works well within the confines of the Doris Harper-White Community Playhouse’s modest stage, with actors oftentimes racing through the aisles and observing faraway scenes just above the front row. The set, designed by Nichole Garrison, has a three-layer platform, allowing plenty of room for dance routines, scene changes and intricate displays of light and creativity, most notably, Daisy’s green light. In a few of Nick’s asides, Gatsby is far off and alone, basking in the green glow of Daisy’s dock. By the end of the play, the light has turned blood red, and Daisy and Tom walk around and amongst the death and despair that has transpired throughout the play, Gatsby’s dreams corrupted by violence. A live piano score by Tanner Dodt keeps the performance alive and moving, aiding when the scene calls for a jive and letting up when a performance demands we pay attention.
In the end, we’re left feeling like Nick in his opening monologue, turning over what his father had said to him so long ago. Do we criticize these people or do we criticize the world which shaped them? And what advantages have we had? That we hadn’t been corrupted by the delusion of wealth? Perhaps.
As good theatre, literature and performance does, Theatrikos’ production of The Great Gatsby leaves us with questions and ideas to bring home, symbolism by which to be enchanted and a unique take on a timeless story.
Catch Theatrikos’ production of The Great Gatsby now through Oct. 21 at the Doris Harper-White Community Playhouse, 11 W. Cherry Ave. Friday and Saturday performances begin at 7:30 p.m. with Gatsby’s Cocktail Hour at 6:30 p.m. offering specialty drinks for sale. Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. Individual tickets are $21-$24, plus fees, and can be purchased online at www.theatrikos.com or by calling 774-1662.