Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A book critic on Gatz

David Ulin's review of Gatz in Sunday's LATimes is thoughtful enough, but I can't help but find his approach condescending. It's a familiar condescension to me, something literary types seem particularly good at when it comes to theater.

It reminds me of hearing Martin Amis speak at a book-signing; he talked about how hilarious it is that Shakespeare, our greatest poet, is a dramatist, considering how low and terrible plays are as a literary art form. He said this as if there was no disputing the fact, which I think has more to do with being Martin Amis than being true, but no matter.

I'm reminded also of one of my Shakespeare professors in my college English department, who said he'd never seen a production of Shakespeare that was better than the one he could find in his head. To this I can only reply, "Congratulations. Now you just stay inside your head and let the rest of us rubes have our fun."

Ulin's quite attached to his thesis about the dangers of excess, so much so that he writes two paragraphs about it (one of which quotes a Terry Southern essay) before mentioning either Gatz or its source material (hmm, excess, interesting), then goes on to suggest that due primarily to the production's length and commitment to presenting the book in its entirety, it's a victim of some kind of "clunky" theatrical excess that the more interior written word avoids, somehow.

And yet, it's set in a run-down office, with a bunch of ordinary people. There's no opulence, there's no period detail, there are no grand set pieces or set changes. Just a bunch of workaday types who become transformed by a great work of literature. I guess you could call that clunky if you like (although what I've seen of Elevator Repair Service suggests that a certain clunkiness is part of the intention -- and charm). If it's excessive, it seems primarily so in its length. To criticize it on that front is to reject the endeavor entirely before even getting to its substance.

Further, farce is hardly a word I would use to describe anything that happened onstage at REDCAT, although he suggests that the first half of Gatz succumbs to farce as an attempt to reconcile the novel's interiority. I'll set aside the use of the word farce as a pejorative (itself an indication of bias) and focus on the difference between farce and comedy. The pertinent difference is that Gatz uses comedy and does not use farce.

And comedy is a serious element of stage (and literature). People like to laugh when they go to theater sometimes. Allowing them to do so is useful, too. It breaks tension. It varies rhythm. It lets audiences breathe. It makes them want to stick around, to come back. We try to do these things for audiences.

The first act of Gatz also has the seductive wildness of the parties Nick stagger into and out of. This is no farce, but a means of seducing the audience, the pedestrian performers and the setting into the world of the novel. It's the most exciting portion of the production, and a smart way of getting at the essence of what to me has always been the most memorable and attractive section of the novel.

Ulin finally shows his cards by the end of the review (right before tying up his excess theme with a great big holiday bow), suggesting that the boldest dramatic choice would've been the Andy Kaufman one -- having an actor sit onstage reading the book. Perhaps that's true, but a lot of us know it's been done already (including ERS, as the director's notes indicated). Regardless, an evaluation like that suggests he'd never have been happy with anything but the pure, undiminished interiority of a book he's already read. It dismisses the attempt at fusing theater and literature to create something new, at using one form to illuminate another, at letting theater artists be theater artists, at respecting the ambition, daring and audacity that birthed this effective, successful, serious production.

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