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Reservoir Dogs

Azusa Productions

at the Chopin Theatre

By Jack Helbig

You're acting like a first-year fucking thief! I'm acting like a professional!

--Mr. Pink to Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs

Nothing is less likely to stir my soul than the prospect of yet another theater company remounting a hit. In most cases, this means the group has reached some point of creative or administrative exhaustion--it's just so much easier to hedge your bets and do something old. That doesn't bode well for future productions, or for the remounting itself, which even in the best of circumstances is likely to seem warmed over. Was anyone surprised last fall when the Goodman served up a refried version of its 1993 hit The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci--or when it seemed to have lost some of its flavor and color in the fridge?

So I was absolutely stunned by Azusa Productions' inspired remounting of Reservoir Dogs, their stage version of Quentin Tarantino's ultraviolent debut film about a jewelry heist gone awry. When I saw Azusa's production last January, I came away more impressed with Tarantino's screenplay than I was with the direction and performances. Even seen through the distorting lens of a raggedy-ass non-Equity production, Tarantino's story held up. Stripped of Andrej Sekula's fancy camera work and Sally Menke's clever editing, it held up.

This time around, however, it wasn't Tarantino's writerly craft I noticed--his masterful use of tough-guy dialogue, his eye for telling details about his characters, his artful use of choreographed violence, employed in much the same places and for much the same purposes as a Sondheim song or an Astaire dance, to create a moment of heightened reality. This time I noticed how well the artists following in his wake--adapter Michael J. Alessandro, codirectors C.C. Cook and Maggie Speer, and the 12-member cast--had shaped Tarantino's story for the stage, allowing meanings not apparent in the film to emerge. We weren't being served leftovers at all but a totally new interpretation of the screenplay, as different from Azusa's rather sad production last winter as that production was from Tarantino's 1991 film. Perhaps that's not surprising given that Speer is the only surviving member of the previous team. Gone is codirector Patrick Wilkes, who also appeared in the show; gone are the 11 other reservoir dogs, replaced by codirector Cook and a cast of universally excellent actors.

Alessandro's adaptation is reasonably good, both faithful and intelligently decinematized. For example, certain tactics that work onscreen--like cutting back and forth from a young hood on a cell phone to a loud, confused scene in which three of the surviving dogs beat up a cop--just won't play onstage. The cuts are too quick. Alessandro simply splits the intercut scenes into two separate ones. But last winter Azusa, using the same adaptation, did little more than what companies like Sweetback Productions and the Factory have been doing for years: with as little muss and fuss as possible, they transposed the film to the stage. This tactic works fine for camped-up comedies, where you don't have to worry about whether the filmmaker's techniques work--in fact, you hope they don't. But if you're trying to transfer a serious drama like Tarantino's intact, the last thing you want is a verbatim reproduction.

There can be no close-ups onstage, for instance. Quiet, subtle scenes played to a camera may well be flat and uninteresting in a wide open space--unless the director and the actor find a stage equivalent. And a good actor can force an audience to concentrate as much on him as if he were in close-up. David Mersault and Doug Long, playing Mr. White and Mr. Pink, do this all the time during Azusa's show, raising their voices to a fever pitch and then, at the peak of their anger, suddenly lowering their tone, making us all lean forward in our chairs. A good director can do the same with clever blocking--as when the opening dinner conversation is staged to look like the Last Supper.

Moreover, the Azusa folks aren't simply trying to capitalize on their past success--they fumbled the first time and have come back to have another crack at it. Of course the potential for re-creation has always existed in Chicago's non-Equity scene: productions are cheap enough, stakes are low enough, talent is abundant enough. But in ten years of reviewing, this is only the second time I've seen a company remount a work in an effort to improve it. And it's the more successful of the two shows (the first was Factory Theater's Alive).

In some ways, this Azusa production is even more successful than the movie. The story is clearer onstage, the character development cleaner. There are times when the movie's gore actually lightens Tarantino's story, diverting us from the work's deeper tones. Cook and Speer don't have the luxury of special-effects violence (though they do use a few prop guns and a little stage blood). Instead they must depend on Tarantino's words to convey his message.

I've seen the movie three times, but it wasn't until I saw Cook and Speer's version that I realized the significance of the opening conversation. A loudmouthed hood, Mr. Brown (Tarantino in the movie), delivers an obscene interpretation of Madonna's "Like a Virgin"--that it's about a woman who fucks a man with a penis so large it hurts her like it's the very first time. Seeing the movie, I thought this bit was no more than an opening hook, a bit of foulmouthed comedy to pull us in. Now I see it's Tarantino's theme. When this gang of experienced criminals run up against a police force with unexpected power--both in numbers and sophistication--it's like their first time. From the beginning they make every mistake a crook can make. Tarantino creates a milieu of crazed anarchy, but his structure is far from anarchic--and this production reveals the screenplay's clarity and integrity.

It took a company with this much guts, imagination, power, and confidence to bring Tarantino's ideas to the fore--something the ever-dodgy filmmaker seemed loathe to do, especially in his first movie. When I caught opening night of Azusa's revival, I too felt touched for the very first time.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still uncredited.

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