When guerilla comic Andy Kaufman wanted to clear a room, he'd stand at the microphone and, in a plummy accent, begin reading The Great Gatsby. On. And. On. Until the last paying customer had fled the building. Rehabilitating this exercise in literary sadism is New York's Elevator Repair Service, which seems fitting, given that one of the troupe's earlier shows was Language Instruction, a 1993 stage work based on Kaufman.
"Andy Kaufman was a real muse for us," says Gatz director John Collins, reached last week at his New York office the day before his departure for the Twin Cities. "He was such a daring experimenter, but he was also an entertainer, and we tend not to associate the two things in performance art or theater."
Gatz is no dry reading, despite the fact that every word of Fitzgerald's text is spoken during the show's six-and-a-half hour duration. ERS began early explorations of the show in 2003 in a seedy office building, and soon enough this accidental environment became an integral part of the show.
"They started imagining this other world," says Walker performance curator Philip Bither, who was instrumental in bringing the show to town. "And it took on its own power—it didn't need to be this daunting, inaccessible act."
And indeed, early accounts of the show report that for all its buttock-numbing length, it's a highly entertaining affair. That is, for the few who have seen it. These Walker shows will be the first presentations of Gatz in North America, save for a series of unbilled "rehearsals" in New York last year that were attended only by the city's theater cognoscenti. The core of the problem has been getting permission from representatives of the Fitzgerald estate, which has balked at the prospect of a staging that might compete with the Simon Levy adaptation of the book that opened this season at the Guthrie.
"We were naive about what we would be able to accomplish on that front," says Collins. "We did receive encouragement from [the estate's] agent, early on. Even then, we probably should have been a lot more cautious than we were. Who knows? It's been a strange and interesting process."
So far ERS has had no luck getting permission to stage Gatz in New York, at least until the long-term prospects of Levy's adaptation shake out. The irony of seeing his show open within a couple of months of Levy's work, in the same city, isn't lost on Collins. He also insists that it isn't a matter of competition, since the works are so dissimilar. Thus, this week Twin Cities audiences will have a chance to catch a hot new work that will leave New Yorkers scanning Northwest's flight schedule.
Collins talks about this six-hour-plus journey in terms of an epiphany he wants to share with his audience. "We're there to make our audiences happy," he says. "But we want to do it by showing them something they've never seen before. We don't want to make our audiences into guinea pigs."
Love Tapes, written by Steven Banks and Penn Jillette, is the unexpectedly sweet tale of a real-life nudie fan tape sent to guitar strangler Steve Vai. The unsolicited naked video has a dodgy track record, for sure, and here we see Melinda (Jennifer Maren) doing naked hula-hoop tricks while pledging her love to a fictionalized metal guitarist. Instead of meeting the rocker, she gets a reply from his shy assistant Carl (Dean Cameron), who spends the second act trying to win her over through his own tapes (audience members are enlisted to film them).
It's a ragged evening, but Maren and Cameron throw themselves into the action with such uncomplicated abandon that it would take a thick crust not to have fun. Finally, the show stares into the abyss of serious drama for about a moment, then steps back from the ledge. Good choice.