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Marathon plays stand the test of time

The 61/2-hour 'Gatz,' a 'Great Gatsby' re-creation coming to REDCAT, is the latest in a long-held tradition of stamina-stretching stagecraft that's a challenge to actors and audiences alike.

November 25, 2012|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Director John Collins, center, is leading the helm of the Elevator Repair Service's production of "Gatz," a page-by-page reading performance adaptation of "The Great Gatsby." Robert Cucuzza, right, plays Tom and Kristen Sieh, left, plays Catherine.
Director John Collins, center, is leading the helm of the Elevator Repair… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

Call it "Long Day's Journey Into Intermission." Or maybe "Waiting ... and Waiting ... and Waiting for Godot."

It is the marathon play or performance piece, the theatrical equivalent of the Tour de France or the nine-course prix fixe menu at the French Laundry. Done poorly it can seem like an endurance test or a stunt. Done brilliantly it can be transformational for those putting on the show as well as those watching it.

Its exemplars are monumental, magisterial works like the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of "Nicholas Nickleby," based on Charles Dickens' 1839 novel, which clocked in at 81/2 hours in two parts (dinner break included) when it opened in London in 1980. Or "The Mahabharata," first performed in 1985, a nine-hour stage play of the Hindu epic, directed by Peter Brook and subsequently turned into a positively svelte six-hour television version.

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The latest heavyweight contender to muscle into a Los Angeles theater is "Gatz," a roughly 61/2-hour, word-for-word reading-cum-enactment of "The Great Gatsby," F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age novel of irrational exuberance and tragic comeuppance. It opens a nine-performance run Wednesday at the black-box REDCAT theater at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Performed by 13 cast members of the New York-based Elevator Repair Service company, most playing multiple roles, "Gatz" has been produced across the United States, Europe and in Singapore, earning encomiums at every stop. Along the way, its cast and crew have faced a constant challenge of getting their game faces on, then taking them off, then putting them on again during the play's intermittent stops and starts.

"We've toured the show all over the world, and it's always funny to hear about what people do offstage sometimes in between their scenes," says John Collins, the play's director and one of the company's co-founders. "They go swimming in the lake in Zurich or they go scope out what the bar's going to be for after the show, then come back and do their scene."

Like other plays of Karamazovian proportions, "Gatz" asks much both of both performers and audiences in terms of concentration and stamina. In return, marathon stage works attempt to deliver an artistic experience not of mere diversion but full immersion. Despite or, perhaps, because of their length, they aim to make audiences fully complicit in creating an evening-long alternate reality.

"Once you say that the telling of this tale is going to involve an investment of considerably more time, you find ways to — first of all — believe in it totally," says Gordon Davidson, who as founding artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum oversaw the development of theatrical sagas such as Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," "The Cider House Rules" (adapted from John Irving's novel), Robert Schenkkan's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "The Kentucky Cycle" and the six-hour cycle of "Floating Islands" plays by the Cuban American writer Eduardo Machado.

Davidson says that when he first saw "Gatz" performed in New York, "the performers were so committed, and the structure of it lent itself, if you sat back and relaxed and listened, they created a world for you."

Of course, short plays can do the same thing, as anyone knows who caught John Hurt's performance this fall in Samuel Beckett's 55-minute, one-act, one-man existential rhapsody "Krapp's Last Tape" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. But marathon plays, at their most effective, require an act of sustained imaginative commitment that can turn an audience of disparate individuals into a pop-up community, forging a bond that endures far longer than the walk back to the parking lot.

"One of my favorite things about it is, at the end of every show you know that every single person in the theater wants to be in the theater," says actor and Cal Arts instructor Robert Cucuzza, who in "Gatz" plays the bullying, polo-playing Tom Buchanan, husband of Daisy and romantic rival of James Gatz, the poor Midwestern kid who reinvents himself as the Long Island playboy millionaire Jay Gatsby. "I've never experienced that as an audience member or an artist."

The concept of theater as a multiple-hour or even all-day affair has deep roots. Ancient Greek theater often was performed as a component of religious festivals that could last days or weeks.

Kabuki, the Japanese dance-drama, with its glacially stylized movements, typically is performed in all-day programs. It unfolds as a kind of waking dream in which the action starts slowly and accelerates over the course of several hours, incrementally building to a swift, satisfying resolution that lands like a sword blow.

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