Virginia Stage Takes on Great Gatsby
It’s taken 35 years for this company to be able to do a play like this,” confesses director Chris Hanna, following a long day of rehearsal for the very play in question, The Great Gatsby. Hanna is simply referring to the technical aspect of this big production, but it’s a provocative statement nonetheless. The Great Gatsby launches the 35th season of the esteemed Virginia Stage Company, and serves as the pivotal theatrical event that celebrates the centennial of the Wells Theatre itself. It was August of 1913 when this theatre was first opened, hoping to bring a big theatrical presence to what is now downtown Norfolk. Named for theatre mogul Jake Wells, the New Wells Theatre, was a prime part of a large portfolio of theatres owned and/or run by Jake and his younger brother, Otto Wells.
One hundred years later, the Wells is still one of the most important performing arts venues that Norfolk currently boasts, especially considering its designation as a National Historic Landmark. And for Hanna, VSC’s longtime Artistic Director, his own history with the company goes back some 30 years. He programmed this entire season around the staging of the F. Scott Fitzgerald literary classic.
“It celebrates, for me, the context of the Wells being built,” he says, referring to the play. Of course the play is adapted to the stage, from the 1925 novel of the same name. Fitzgerald’s now epic work of American literature, brings to life the excesses of a young privileged class living in a fictional town on Long Island in 1922. To this day, the novel is a perennial best seller and has maintained an aesthetics driven allure due to the iconography of the decadent, roaring twenties lifestyle that it articulates so well. And then there is that romance between the characters of millionaire Jay Gatsby and the very married Daisy Buchanan.
“As a society right now, I think that we’re really searching for romance…and there’s so many cheaper versions of it out there,” Chris notes. “A lot of people would argue that The Great Gatsby is the greatest romance in American literature.”
The 2013 blockbuster film adaption of The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, definitely deserves some credit for keeping Gatsby fever as part of our current zeitgeist. The Baz Luhrmann directed film received largely mixed reviews, with many applauding the film’s visual accomplishments while criticizing the weak story and/or performances.
“No one actually believed that was Gatsby,” remarks Hanna, a bit later in our conversation, referencing Leonardo’s work. Interestingly enough, the subject of that recent Gatsby film also came up during a recent rehearsal for VSC’s production of the work. Christy Escobar, who plays the iconic character of Daisy, is somewhat generous with the film, remarking on how “gorgeous” it was to look at. Others gathered in this rehearsal space in the Virginia Arts Festival building, are decidedly less impressed with it. Impressive though, is the chemistry between Escobar and Michael Schantz, who plays Gatsby. During the scene where the two characters are reunited by Nick Carraway, who is played here by Ian Holcomb, their lust and/or love for each other is deeply palpable. According to Hanna, Christy “hit me as Daisy right away,” but “Michael I really needed to focus on.” He states that the role of Jay Gatsby was one of his hardest to cast, because he remains a mystery throughout the play, as he did throughout the novel. He lauds his actor’s performance however, stating that “as compelling as he is, you also don’t know where he’s coming from.” In other words, Schantz has been able to capture the lead character’s mystique.
And for Michael and Christy as actors, Chris Hanna has been an ideal director. “From the very first audition I was very comfortable with Chris,” states Schantz. “I’d also heard that he was just a very actor friendly director too.”
“He’s wonderful because you really do feel like he trusts you with the work,” explains Escobar. “It’s so refreshing as an actor to get to explore and not worry about whether or not the director will hate me if I try this…”
Hanna credits playwright Simon Levy’s stage adaption for “sticking to the story and making the story clearer.” In reviewing the Guthrie Theater’s big set production of Gatsby, Variety’s critic even commented that “Levy’s adaption wisely anchors itself around the first-person account of narrator Nick Carraway.”
“The production is really geared towards the imagination and metaphor,” states Hanna. “We’re not trying to recreate Gatsby’s castle… Whenever Hollywood’s tried to tell the story, that’s what it’s always tried to do.
“The basic message of the story is that none of that outside stuff counts for anything.”
The Great Gatsby
Wells Theatre, Virginia Stage Company
September 17- October 6