News Column

"Gatsby" casting done with a very narrow net

September 17, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 17--By Teresa Annas

The Virginian-Pilot

NORFOLK

Christopher Hanna went into auditions in New York this summer with an eye out for certain qualities he wanted in his leading lady and man.

The director of the Virginia Stage Company's production of "The Great Gatsby" wanted his Daisy to really look like she needed others to take care of her.

And he wanted his Gatsby to seem genuinely mysterious.

"These are the two toughest roles I've cast in my time at the Stage Company," said Hanna, who has been artistic director since 2005.

"The Great Gatsby," in previews starting today and opening Friday, is a stage play set in the summer of 1922 and faithfully drawn from F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel of 1925.

Daisy Buchanan is a delicate Southern belle enjoying the ultra-rich life afforded her by her upper-crust, philandering husband, Tom.

Jay Gatsby, the title character, is a man nobody seems to know. He owns a huge Long Island mansion and throws decadent parties with drinking, dancing and worse that draw Manhattan's entire flapper and dandy set. He rarely shows up at his own parties, and little is known of him.

"Creating an enigma on stage is one of the hardest things to do," Hanna said. "Why is it hard? Because it is so much underplaying," which goes against an actor's instincts to... act.

"As soon as you start acting, you're giving away who you are and what you want."

Gatsby needs to hold that information close to his vest. He has plenty to hide, and is playing a waiting game -- for his dream girl to show up at his dream palace on the water.

Reading for the role, actor after actor couldn't resist the temptation to... act.

Then Hanna saw Michael Schantz, who was refreshingly understated. Just what Hanna wanted. Except he was so subtle that Hanna took the actor, too, as truly enigmatic.

When Hanna hires an actor, he knows he'll be spending weeks with that person. He needs to sense the performer will get along with him and others. With Schantz, he couldn't read him at all.

The director scanned Schantz's resume and saw he had performed in a show with Amelia Pedlow, who played Miranda this summer in Virginia Stage's "The Tempest." Hanna tracked her down and inquired.

"Why are you asking?" Pedlow said.

"Because I will cast him in 'Gatsby' unless you tell me the wrong thing," Hanna said.

Pedlow jumped out of her chair excitedly. "Michael is my roommate in New York," she told Hanna. "He's one of the dearest people on the planet."

Remembering that, Hanna had to laugh.

"That's what you need in this character. Everybody in this play spends the whole time saying, 'Who is this guy?' And that's what I did this summer" regarding Schantz.

Enter the actor, last week, in Norfolk. Are you an enigma, Mr. Schantz?

"I don't think so. I think there are parts of myself that I don't understand yet, at 30 years old. To myself I can be an enigma."

But he doesn't think he is portraying Gatsby as an enigma.

"I'm thinking about it in a more practical sense -- meaning that he's a guy who is trying to do something in his life. The ways in which he goes about that may create an enigma to the people around him. But it's all pointed at getting something that he wants."

"He has to make up lies, and those lies serve as a gauze between him and the world. He has to be enigmatic for survival."

During auditions for Daisy, "so many talented actresses came in," Hanna said. "They were all independent-spirited. You could just tell they didn't need to be taken care of." He could read it in their body language, if not in their voices.

And yet it was critical that the chosen actress practically ooze neediness.

"In the same way everybody (in the play) spends the evening trying to figure out who Gatsby is, the characters onstage also spend the evening trying to take care of her."

If Hanna studied Christy Escobar's resume just before she walked onstage, he might have been skeptical. The first item on her short bio is having co-written and starred in a one-woman show about the famously independent-minded actress Katherine Hepburn.

"I had never met Christy. Once she read, I had two more days of auditions, but I knew she was my Daisy."

Escobar said she wasn't aware she put out that help-me vibe. As to the character of Daisy, "she is needy. She's also very charming. I think she gets what she wants almost always because she does it in a charming and witty way," the actress said, sounding almost defensive of the character.

Part of her research for the role was studying Fitzgerald's flighty, unstable wife, Zelda, who was raised in Alabama. Like Daisy, she had been belle of the ball until she married and the limelight shifted to her spouse. "I see a lot of Daisy in her."

Daisy is "very smart, more than people give her credit for," she went on. "She's very complex because she alternates between this codependence and this incredible act of rebellion."

Codependency would be the modern term for Daisy's unhealthy reliance on her abusive husband.

Rebellion is the word for a 1920s woman's choice to fall back in love with Gatsby and contemplate running away with him.

The actors are in a play produced just a few times before. Simon Levy's adaptation premiered at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2006 in celebration of the opening of its new playhouse, but few theaters jumped to stage it.

The reason, Hanna said, is that it was in a heated contest with another stage show based on the novel -- "Gatz," which primarily consisted of actors reading from the book. "Gatz" won and succeeded off-Broadway.

Hanna said he wanted to be part of reviving this officially sanctioned version and sending it out into the world. Plus, the era it presents is ideal to open a season that celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Wells Theatre.

The play's 13 actors, many of them in multiple roles, will portray the wild-party scene swirling around Gatsby, but with a greater emphasis on the intimate love story at the center. That's in contrast to the recent film directed by Baz Luhrmann, which exudes frenetic energy and intense spectacle.

There will still be fabulous effects via lights and projections and gorgeous costumes.

"Everybody who loves the novel says what they love about it is the love story."

In Hanna's mind, that's why it's so critical that he cast the right Daisy and Gatsby.

"If we believe that Daisy can take care of herself, the story is over."

Teresa Annas, 757-446-2485,teresa.annas@pilotonline.com

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if you go

What "The Great Gatsby," produced by Virginia Stage Company

Where The Wells Theatre, 108 E. Tazewell St., Norfolk

When Previews 7 p.m. today and 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; opens 8 p.m. Friday with more performances; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 7 p.m. Tuesdays and 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, through Oct. 6

Cost $38 to $55; previews are $25

More info 627-1234, www.vastage.com

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