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Adapted for the stage by Simon Levy

MainStage Irving-Las Colinas

Director: Wheelice Wilson Jr.
Produced by Tom Ortiz and Steven Merritt
Producers: Steven Merritt and Tom Ortiz
Lighting Designer: Sam Nance
Scenic Designer: Jeffrey Franks
Sound Designer: Andi Allen
Costume Designer: Michael Robinson/Dallas Costume Shoppe
Multi Media-Visual Designer: Rich Frohlich
Master Carpenter: Kris Hampton
Properties: Dawn Blasingame

Travis Ponikiewski (Jay Gatsby)
Adam Kullman (Nick Caraway)
Grace Gaddy (Daisy Buchanan)
Lori Jones (Jordan Baker)
Jon Garrard (Tom Buchanan)
Gerald Fitzgerald (George Wilson)
Madyson Greenwood (Myrtle Wilson).

The ensemble includes Louden Bongfeldt, Zac Cooper, Amber Cross, Travis Fant, Cory Germany, Molly Mae and Klarice McCarron.

Photos by Michael McCray

Reviewed Performance: 5/14/2016

Reviewed by Holly Reed, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

MainStage Irving-Las Colinas continues its 2015-16 Light the Lights! season with Simon Levy's all-new adaptation based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel, The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby, a self-made millionaire, passionately pursues the elusive Daisy Buchanan. Nick Carraway, a young newcomer to Long Island, is drawn into their world of obsession, greed and danger.

The stage version of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby explores and exposes the dangers of shallowness, excess, obsessiveness, and false assumptions about the rules of obtaining the American dream framing the culture of the 1920s. Themes of the Jazz Age including prohibition, bootlegging, organized crime and military camaraderie were strong in the setting, dialogue and story.

In the press for the Mainstage production, it was stated, “The breathtaking glamour and decadent excess of the Jazz Age comes to the stage in an adaptation fully approved by the Fitzgerald Estate. The illustrious green light glows on in this cautionary tale of love unrequited.” Director Wheelice Wilson, Jr. says, “The Great Gatsby is a real challenge. Most everyone knows the book and loves it. I am especially excited about bringing this story to the stage because it is full of visuals from the Jazz Age and iconic characters. It appears that we have landed a cast of actors who can do these characters right.”

I would agree with Director Wilson in his assessment of the difficulty of presenting the Fitzgerald classic. The novel itself is a heavy read, and that slowness presented itself in a very laborious interpretation of Mainstage’s The Great Gatsby. The story bogged down from the start and never quite recovered. There was no “breathtaking glamour and decadent excess” or “iconic characters.” The play proved to be a long discourse on stock acting and would be a disappointment to the vivacity of the Jazz Age.

The Dupree Theater at Irving Arts Center is a small, comfortable, well-equipped theatre that could support a production of both large and small scales. The set for The Great Gatsby was very modest, with very little trace of glitz and glamour one would expect from such an extravagant era. I very much expected to be overwhelmed with sizzle—shallow sizzle of course—but nevertheless golden, shimmering, SIZZLE. Rather than be seated among the well-to-do of the 20’s, I frequently felt like the setting was more a front porch or parlor in the South: simple, quiet, modestly furnished and meekly decorated. One of the most bothersome parts to me technically was the heavy handed use of the projection screens. I felt it worked against the truthfulness and “present tense” of the show. If we were watching a movie from the 20’s, yes, it might look rudimentary and cartoonish. But if we were stepping out of our Rolls Royce onto Long Island for the party of the century, the lights, glamour, sheen and sparkle would be blinding—not faded or cheesy. It is technically challenging to pull off screen projections in a believable fashion, so I lean towards a strong “less is more” approach with digital visuals unless they are the only medium adequate to achieve the desired setting.

The actors took quite a while to warm up, but I felt that after intermission, they committed more strongly to brining truth to their characters. There was, however, a lack of depth and authenticity in the actors, which I realize is inherent in their respective characters, but shouldn’t be true of the actors. I desperately wanted the actors to commit much more strongly to making “truthful choices in imagined circumstances.” I didn’t feel that the actors’ choices were inevitable based on their reactions to the scene. They were much more scripted, hollow, unconnected.

The lead role of Jay Gatsby was played by Travis Ponikiewski, a charming and handsome young man whose muscular physique played well in the part. Travis had a confident physical swagger on stage and his Gatsby never showed fear or surprise in any of the tactics of his adversary, Tom (Jon Garrard). There was a strong element of mystery around this Gatsby—unreachable, untouchable, and unknowable. While he did have a good chemistry with Daisy (Holly Grace Gaddy), his conversations with other characters such as Nick and Tom were somewhat awkward and forced.

Holly Grace Gaddy (Daisy) was always a thin, delicate, flower of a girl blown and tossed by every wind and whim that caught her fancy. We never knew what Daisy really wanted. She seemed to always be a victim. My favorite moments of hers were the retelling of Gatsby’s proposal and when she sang in Act Two. I think she connected in those moments, but the rest of the show she was very two-dimensional and never established a real identity. Visually, she was precious and her voice was sweet and innocent and made me want to know how she really felt. Perhaps that was intentional; perhaps Daisy was a woman without a voice, without conviction, without direction. I still wanted to know her more and longed to see a moment of true brokenness at the result of her impatience and failure to wait for her true love.

The actor I was most convinced had studied and embraced his character was Jon Garrard (Tom Buchanan). He was actually frightening at times and conveyed the bigotry, narcissism, aggression and controlling nature of Tom quite well. I wanted to see more polarity in his character, though, with a flexibility to move from the dominating, abusive alcoholic to a desperate, insecure, threatened husband. Jon shows this somewhat at the end when faced with the question if Daisy ever really loved him, but I really wanted him to go much further with that, to reveal his depravity and the lack of substance and satisfaction that his lifestyle extravagantly promised.

Another actor that proved interesting was Gerald Fitzgerald (George Wilson). I haven’t seen any other productions of The Great Gatsby, so I don’t have a reference point for this, but it struck me odd that this older gentleman was cast as the naïve husband of Tom’s secret lover, Myrtle. In the Tom-Daisy-Gatsby love triangle, there was at least a strong attraction in all directions making a difficult choice for Daisy. I actually didn’t even realize George and Myrtle were married until the second act. That being said, I happened to really enjoy Gerald’s individual performance. He was truthful, authentic, and believable and I felt sorry for him every time he was on stage. Again, not because of Myrtle’s unfaithfulness, but because he was the one representative of the lesser tribe—of those unencumbered by wealth and the delusions of grandeur—and was overlooked and mistreated as such.

I again wanted to see more polarity between George Wilson and all other members of the Long Island culture. I hungered for a haughty, flippant, entitlement that ran deep to their core. I wanted to see Nick (Adam Kullman) wrestle more aggressively and truthfully with the culture set before him.

I believe this cast was close—I think they KNEW their characters, but didn’t fully commit to becoming them. It is a risk to embrace motives as shallow and despicable as those portrayed in Fitzgerald’s account of the Jazz Age. But as actors, they are responsible to accurately tell the tale and message that disturbed the writer enough to create the work. When on stage, an actor must dig deep and bring their depravity to light, if that is what is required. Commit, commit, commit. Allow yourself to wrestle with the issues at hand and respond honestly to the environment around you. The audience will be moved. They will be disgusted and appalled and overwhelmed as they are faced with those issues within themselves. That is what theatre is all about—leaving with awareness you didn’t bring in.

The MainStage cast accurately told the story of The Great Gatsby. I didn’t leave confused or misguided in plot or theme. But I didn’t leave moved. In staging, design and acting, MainStage could have pushed this company further to both overwhelm the audience with 1920s glamour as well as shine a fine light on the shortcomings of our society almost 100 years later.

The Great Gatsby
MainStage Irving-Las Colinas
Irving Arts Center’s Dupree Theater, 3333 N. MacArthur Blvd., Irving, TX 75062
Runs Through May 28, 2016

For dates, times, prices, etc. for tickets, visit Performed at the Irving Arts Center’s Dupree Theater (3333 N. MacArthur Blvd., Irving, TX 75062). All evening performances are at 7:30 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Tickets range from $19-28 and are on sale now at the Irving Arts Center Box Office (972.252.2787 or . Ticket discounts are available for seniors and students.