Scott Shepherd (foreground) and Elevator Repair Service bring “The Great Gatsby” to life in “Gatz.” (Courtesy Ian Douglas)

Fitzgerald classic springs to life in ‘Gatz’ at Berkeley Rep

‘Born in East Berlin’ explores pivotal Springsteen concert

To be immersed in the world of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby” in this verbatim theatricalization by New York’s esteemed Elevator Repair Service, presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is, at least at first, to live for a while (actually, almost nine hours including breaks) in two worlds. One is Fitzgerald’s. In the other, silent one called “Gatz,” a bored office worker with a broken computer (Scott Shepherd) happens upon a copy of the book and, to while away the time, begins to read it aloud.

Employees of what appears as a late-20th-century milieu (a secretary, a computer repairman, others) wander in and out and ever-so-gradually take on the roles of Fitzgerald’s characters — or, more accurately, slip in and out of them: the fetching rich girl Daisy (Annie McNamara), of whom someone comments, “Her mouth is full of money … that’s her charm,” and her brutish husband, Tom Buchanan (Robert M. Johanson); the tart-tongued golf champ, Jordan (Susie Sokol); the enigmatic, essentially unknowable title character (a wonderfully deadpan Jim Fletcher); and a host of others. In a touching coda, Fletcher’s real-life dad, Ross Fletcher, briefly plays Gatsby’s father.

Just as gradually, Shepherd the actor becomes the book’s narrator, working stiff Nick Carraway, a “bonds man” who commutes to New York City from West Egg and who sees himself, at least initially, as the only truly honest person among his wealthy neighbors in the upscale Long Island community.

It’s metatheatrical magic the way the two realities meld together on designer Louisa Thompson’s cluttered office set. There, amid computers and cordless phones, Fitzgerald’s world of 1920s glamour comes to life, no matter that the actors wear drab office attire that matches the set (costumes by Colleen Werthmann). Only Gatsby’s rose-pink suit and a few other touches aim for literal representation.

In fact, those two worlds, one a sort of palimpsest of the other, reflect Nick’s own slightly removed observations of the society and the complex relationships that he’s so carefully watching and describing (with an occasional fourth-wall-breaking glance at the audience) and inevitably involved in. Thus the company’s theatrical conceit serves Fitzgerald’s story well, enriching its inherent elements of humor, foreboding, social commentary and introspection.

There’s the poignancy of Gatsby’s obsessive love for the unattainable Daisy, and the delicious awkwardness of their carefully arranged meeting. There’s the aching sadness of his generosity and his deep social isolation. There are the wonderfully comical scenes of the drunken parties. There are all the horrifying and dramatic episodes and Nick’s rueful musings.

And the gifted ensemble, under John Collins’ exquisitely detailed direction, inhabits its two worlds gracefully.

For sure, audience stamina is required, but this exploration of an American literary classic is enthralling.

REVIEW

Gatz

Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Where: Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley

When: 2 p.m. most Thursdays-Sundays; extended through March 1

Tickets: $60 to $125

Contact: (510) 647–2949, berkeleyrep.org

From left, Lauren Hart, Ash Malloy, Christopher Reber and Patrick Andrew Jones appear in “Born in East Berlin.” (Courtesy Jessica Palopoli)

If Fitzgerald’s roaring 20s pinpoints a moment in time, so too does Rogelio Martinez’s world premiere, “Born in East Berlin,” albeit in a totally different way, both stylistically and contextually.

In the drama, set in Cold War East Berlin, Martinez (who was born in Cuba) explores that bygone era through a very specific lens, and if the play’s arc can be bumpy at times, and transitions abrupt, it’s nevertheless an intriguing journey.

Part of San Francisco Playhouse’s new-play Sandbox Series, and developed at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, it’s directed by Margarett Perry with careful attention to both humor and despair, and performed by a strong seven-member cast.

In 1988, Bruce Springsteen performed in an arena in East Berlin, and 300,000 fans showed up. The event is seen by some as a catalyzing moment, in which young East German fans demonstrated to the world their longing for freedom (over time, an estimated 140 East Berliners were shot trying to climb over the wall, according to an article provided to the press by SF Playhouse; the wall came down in 1989).

The play covers another bit of real history, about how East Berlin officials first promoted the show as a benefit for the Sandinista rebels of Nicaragua, but rescinded the notices after Springsteen, who doesn’t permit endorsements in connection to his concerts, found out about the plans at the last minute and said he wouldn’t perform.

Martinez wisely explores the events surrounding that politically fraught concert — before, during (partly by way of video clips) and after — through several fictional characters, all flawed in deeply human, understandable ways.

They include: Anne (Ash Malloy), the spirited young American contract negotiator who declares herself “apolitical”; taciturn Hans (Patrick Andrew Jones), one of several German officials responsible for negotiating the contract with her; Katja (Isabel Langen), an angry and frustrated university student longing to escape to the West; her boyfriend, Gerhard (Griffin O’Connor); and several other locals. All the characters except Anne are German and speak, some actors more proficiently than others, with German accents.

Naïve Anne touts her American-bred convictions. Allowing oneself to remain under a communist regime is a matter of personal choice, she believes. Springsteen, she proclaims, “is here to liberate you” (recordings of the Boss’ rock’n’roll play throughout at various times).

For a while it seems that the two-act play is simply an us-versus-them polemic, but the plot turns out to be more nuanced than that. The playwright sets up a series of personal encounters, all within an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia and with plenty of comic moments.

In a particularly amusing scene, the baffled German officials nitpick their way through Springsteen’s contract riders. They’re particularly suspicious about the band’s demands for Poland Spring bottled water.

In another, people line up just because they see a queue and figure they’ll get something or other when they get to the head.

By the end, events have unfurled in ways that, from our vantage point 32 years later, are sad, funny, heartbreaking and hopeful.

REVIEW

Born in East Berlin

Presented by San Francisco Playhouse

Where: Creativity Theater, Children’s Creativity Museum, 221 Fourth St., S.F.

When: 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 29

Tickets: $30 to $40

Contact: (415) 677-9596, sfplayhouse.org

Theater

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