Sometimes theater people make theater just for other theater people. Such is the case with the Off-Broadway oddity Gatz a seven-hour long play in which actors read aloud the entirety of The Great Gatsby live onstage. It’s the sort of experimental pretentiousness that makes normal people run screaming straight to movie theaters. Luckily, theater people also poke fun at the pretentiousness of other theater people, and that’s the case with Batz, a parody of Gatz. In Batz the cast acts out a series of Batman comic books, and it mercifully takes a lot less than seven hours.
The show was produced last year in a different venue and we enjoyed it, but now it’s being performed at Joe’s Pub, the cabaret room of the Joseph Papp Public Theater. The irony there is that the Public Theater hosted Gatz back in 2010, and had another run earlier this year. Theater people who are in on the gag should take extra delight in this choice of venue, and Batman fans at least had a little more Dark Knight on opening weekend of The Dark Knight Rises.
In Batz, a group of bored office workers stumble across a thick collection of classic Batman comics from the 38’s and 40’s. They take turns acting out the role of Batman, The Joker and other characters from the comics while a Narrator (Played by Harrison Unger) reads aloud the captions. The rest of the cast recites the comic dialog verbatim, acting out the events depicted in the story too.
It’s done with campiness, but also a certain reverence for the source material. The comic books used are reprints of actual Batman comics, including the issue of Detective Comics that introduced Batman, as well as the first appearances of Robin and The Joker. Hardcore fans will recognize these classic tales and the less-fanatical Batman enthusiasts will get a lesson in how comic books were written back in the good old days.
The humor comes from various source like the unintentional sexual innuendo, the changes in American language over the least seventy years, and the wildly implausible events that happened to the Dynamic Duo in their adventures.
The show also points out the difference between dialog that was intended to be read, and dialog that was meant to be spoken aloud, such as a joke on how to pronounce the word “Lead”.
A great deal of fun comes from the repeated use of the word “Boner” in one infamous story. In the more innocent time that the comic was written, “Boner” was a synonym for “Mistake”, and the characters repeatedly lament being laughed at for their boners.
It’s done with overt glee radiating from the cast who return from the previous production. Notable are Dan Maccarone as Robin, Bob Laine’s Penguin and Matt Gray’s Joker.
I saw last year’s production of Batz and felt that its running time of 90 minutes wore out its welcome. The new production has been trimmed down to run about an hour and this time around it hits all the right notes without dragging on for too long. The first Catwoman appearance is cut, but the show is stronger for it, becoming a Joker-centric story.
Being produced in a cabaret setting means that there is very little in the way of set. In fact many of the cast members are seated among the audience, with the section of the pub closest to the stage being turned into a makeshift office set. This does provide the opportunity for more audience interaction, including a fun recreation of the “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb” gag from the Adam West Batman movie.
Despite the small playing area, the show is full of energy and the cast uses simple office supplies as stand-ins for whatever the story requires. This suits the premise of the story, but also makes it work very efficiently with the limited production values.
Josh Mertz and Erik Bowie have taken the unwieldy theater experiment of Gatz and made it much more enjoyable. Unfortunately this run of Batz only had two performances, with the final playing right alongside the opening of Dark Knight Rises. Comic fans should keep an eye out for the Batz signal in the future.