—Originally published October 31, 2016—
Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor, and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of Northwestern students who always go to see plays together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, the Girls saw “The Great Gatsby,” the opening production of the Wirtz Center’s 2016/2017 season. Let’s hear what they had to say on their way back from the theater…
“‘The Great Gatsby’ is really weird.”
This was the first thing Gwen had said since leaving the theatre. Eleanor and Dania had made some comfortable small talk with a friend in the lobby, but they hadn’t discussed the production right away. Now, having walked approximately the requisite 100 feet from the theatre, Gwen’s voice rang out.
“I mean the book, not this stage version.”
“Well,” said Eleanor, trying to gauge where Gwen was headed, “I also thought this version was pretty weird.”
“Of course,” Gwen said. “But what I mean is, the original is weird already. And then to turn it into this other version is… there’s no way for it not to be weird. That’s what I’m getting at.”
“Okay,” Eleanor said. “So you thought this stage version was kinda weird?”
“I thought it was exceedingly weird,” Gwen said. “Not bad, mind you, but…” Gwen stopped, mid-sentence. Her mind had been firing at 100 miles an hour during the entire two hours of Simon Levy’s languid adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel. The direction, from 3rd year MFA director Michael Cotey, had given Gwen so many stimuli to respond to that she was having trouble voicing her opinions in any coherent way.
Eventually, the words that tumbled out: “It was very clear that the adaptor had an opinion about the story. I mean, a Capital-O Opinion about it.”
“And that’s bad?” Dania asked.
“Not necessarily,” Gwen clarified.
“Because I actually liked it quite a bit,” Eleanor said.
“You did?” Gwen asked.
“Sure. It was a little slow at times, and a little fast at others, but on the whole, I get it,” Eleanor said. “Though, I haven’t read The Great Gatsby since high school, I’ll tell you that.”
“I’ve never read it at all,” Dania said. “And there were things I didn’t entirely get.”
“Like, what were the giant eyes with glasses that came in from the ceiling?”
“The eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg!” Eleanor said. “It’s the giant billboard right outside of Wilson’s…”
“Oh, it’s a billboard!” Dania said, her eyes widening with clarity. “That makes way more sense. Why was it on the ground?”
“Well,” Eleanor began to explain, “in the book, the billboard is this constant presence in all the Valley of Ashes scenes. Wilson looks up at it…”
“The Valley of what?” Dania said.
“Valley of Ashes. It’s the place where Wilson and Myrtle live,” Gwen explained.
“The car shop,” Eleanor added. “The billboard is this looming presence throughout the whole story, these kind of always-watching eyes that see all the hypocrisy and shallowness of the characters.”
“Oh,” Dania said. Her eyes lit up with recognition. “Oh, and that’s what the giant eye in that one scene was.”
“Yes,” Gwen said. “It’s a symbol of the judgement that Wilson is about to dole out, and the judgement that he can feel on himself for doing so.”
“So many symbols,” Dania remarked.
“The book’s big on symbolism.”
“I thought they got that kind of symbolism onstage,” Eleanor said. “Like the part where Daisy is singing and the lights start lowering really, really slow? That was interesting.”
“It was so slow that I only felt it at first,” Gwen said. “I couldn’t actually see them moving and there was this uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia. That was a really well-done moment.”
“The car, as well,” Eleanor said. “I totally understand why the ensemble was all costumed in yellow now.”
“Yellow pops against the dark blue background, whether you’re a car or a party guest. But the human car was… clever. That’s probably how I’d describe the direction overall,” Gwen said. “Clever. I’m always a fan of shows with unit sets and almost no major set changes.”
“I thought it just looked kind of empty,” Dania said. “Like, this house is supposed to be grand and all, but it was just kind of disappointing.”
“That’s what I liked about it,” Gwen said. “That’s what Gatsby is. All talk and fluff but no actual substance.”
“But there wasn’t even fluff!” Dania countered. “They all talk about how rich and successful he is, but his wealth was like six potted plants and a dresser of shirts—what was up with the shirts?”
“Oh, it’s this big scene in the book,” Eleanor said. “Gatsby brings Daisy around and she cries over all the beautiful shirts.”
“Why does she cry over the shirts?” Dania asked.
“It’s because…” Eleanor began, thinking back to her sophomore year in high school, studying the book. “Well, she waited for so long for Gatsby to come back, and he didn’t, so she was seduced by Tom’s money and status, so she married him. But now she has Gatsby, who she loves, but now he’s trying to win her over in the same way. But she also is kind of materialistic, so in a certain way it’s like a cover up for her real feelings, because Gatsby being rich does actually make her more interested than if he had been—“
“Yeah, that’s what it feels like,” Dania said. “Symbols and symbols. But I don’t know why it actually happens. Like, in the story.”
“It’s a confusing moment in the book as well,” Gwen said.
“And then the party people come in and throw the shirts around for Nick?”
“Okay, that I didn’t really get,” Gwen said. “But it was a good ending image for the first act.”
“I liked Nick well enough, now that you bring him up,” Eleanor said. “Noah LaPook can certainly stand around unobtrusively with the best of them.”
“He has a powerfully resonant voice,” Gwen said. “I wasn’t entirely sure about him during the opening monologue, when it got a little soft. But for most of the show, I bought him as a narrator. And that this story would startle him so.”
“Speaking of volume, the first scene,” Dania said. “With the curtains from the ceiling.”
“Oh, yeah,” Eleanor said. “I like that scene a lot. But it was kind of soft. But we were near the back, so…”
“Project so they can hear you in the back,” Gwen added, repeating an old theatrical adage.
“Though I liked the girl with the short hair a lot. I was on her side,” Dania said.
“Jordan!” Eleanor said.
“Yes,” Gwen agreed. “Sarah Olson. She was marvelous in that role. Perfect casting. Such a dry observance of the world around her. Like Nick, but more accepting of everything.”
“I don’t know if people are supposed to like her, but…” Eleanor said.
“Well, I didn’t like her, but I thought she was interesting to watch.”
“I enjoyed Neal Davidson as Tom, as well,” Gwen said. “The hulking brute of a man. To be fair, that’s basically his “Big Love” character from last year with more dialogue.”
“You know what I liked?” Eleanor said. “Water. Every time it got used, it was just really effective to watch. And I usually don’t like that kind of cloth-waving-water effect. But it worked.”
“Definitely,” Gwen agreed. “The final moments when Gatsby is swimming? And he dives down?”
“That looked awesome,” Dania said.
“I’ve never seen that scene staged like that,” Gwen continued. “But I thought it communicated what it needed to effectively.”
“It’s strange,” Eleanor said. “I don’t want to compare it to the book all the time, but this version is so simple that it’s difficult to find other points of comparison. Or things to criticise.”
“Oh, I definitely have criticisms,” Gwen said. “The music would be one.”
“The music?” Dania asked.
“Yeah,” Gwen said. “The strangely prerecorded jazzy music that was floating through some of the scenes and not others. It gave the whole show this strange, ethereal ambiance that I’m not sure was the intention.”
“Well, if they were going for dreamlike,” Eleanor said, “they certainly got that. With the smoke everywhere and that distant-sounding sound.”
“Ethereal and dreamlike aren’t the same, though,” Gwen said. “Plus, it was the wrong era of jazz music. It was more 1950s slow-down sultry music, rather than that upbeat 1920s dance jazz that Gatsby usually has. Like a distant party.”
“Well, maybe they wanted more of a slow jazz version of the story here,” Eleanor suggested. “Something half-remembered rather than present. That would explain the ghostlight and everything.”
“Maybe,” Gwen said. “I’d buy that. In that case, then, it wasn’t clear that was the choice.”
“I just didn’t like being able to hear people’s feet on the stage,” Dania said.
Gwen’s eyebrows furrowed. “That’s a strangely petty criticism, even for you.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Dania said. “Not just that I could hear the feet, but it’s that kind of play. You know? Where there are these long spaces in between people’s lines that are supposed to be, y’know, intense or something, but it’s just kind of slow? Does that make sense?”
“I understand what you mean,” Gwen said. “I just think they did keep the tension up.”
“There was this one moment, during the wedding flashback,” Dania continued. “It’s like, there’s no music, or there’s only very soft music. Tom comes out with the pearl necklace, and hugs Daisy, and she tries to escape. Or something like that. And they spin around onstage. And I suddenly hear their feet very clearly, stepping around onstage. And it sort of reminds me that they’re actors.”
Dania looked to Eleanor and Gwen, who were both looking down and thinking on this observation. Dania added, “Does that make any sense?”
“I believe I understand,” Gwen said. “Hearing the feet in the silence somehow takes you out of the atmosphere of the performance?”
“Well, I just remember that it’s all a play,” Dania said. “Something about hearing the feet, it made the whole scene feel kind of empty.”
“Silence isn’t always a bad thing,” Eleanor said. “Maybe the feet were louder there to communicate that they were unstable, or something like that.”
“It’s not just feet,” Dania said. “There were a few times throughout when it felt like a play. Like, for whatever reason, I remembered that I was in a theatre watching a play. I mean, it is a play, I know…”
“No, that’s a legitimate critique,” Gwen reassured Dania. “If you don’t feel the silences are earned and tense, then the dropped tension can make the audience feel isolated from the narrative.”
Dania shook her head, and pointed to Gwen. “Yes, sure, that.”
“It has to keep moving forward,” Gwen clarified. “I felt that too, certain moments when it didn’t feel like the plot was moving forward. It’s the problem with adapting a story as intricately detailed and literary as this one.”
“Well, I don’t know about you two,” Eleanor said. “But I liked it just fine. Sure, it might lean on your knowledge of the book, but as someone who read the book once, I remembered enough to enjoy it as an adaptation.”
“I wonder if it ever wanted to stand on its own for people who haven’t read the source material,” Gwen wondered aloud.
“It didn’t do that for me, I can say that,” Dania said.
“Well, to each their own,” Eleanor said.
The walked along quietly for a few minutes, before Gwen finally put to words the thought tumbling through her head.
“Maybe you could say that the whole production is this allegory for Gatsby as a literary property,” Gwen said, shrugging. “You expect one thing, the reputation around it is full of parties and liquor and jazz and wealth, but when you dig deeper all you find is depression and attempts to repeat the past…”
“Would that mean you liked it more?” Eleanor asked.
“Perhaps,” Gwen said. “If that was intentional.”
And they walked silently after that, until Dania changed the subject, and the topic of Gatsby drifted off across the lake.
Photo credit: Justin Barbin Photography
THE GREAT GATSBY runs until October 30 in the Josephine Louis Theater at Northwestern University (20 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston, IL 60201). Tickets and more information are available at https://www.communication.northwestern.edu/wirtz/the-great-gatsby.