The smallish audience with whom I saw Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction: The Stage Production seemed, on the whole, to enjoy it. I say this in the interest of fairness, before I confess that I fled the theater after the second act--the end of the "Gold Watch" segment. The show made me want to go home, throw Tarantino's film on the VCR and watch the wonderful performances of John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Ving Rhames, Uma Thurman and Harvey Keitel, instead of watching admiring approximations of them. But then, I was the boring fudd who always sort of wanted the Rocky Horror cultists to keep it down so I could watch that movie.
The comparison isn't inapt--I bet that the people who applauded happily for their favorite scenes in the Feast of Fools Theatre's Pulp Fiction would have enjoyed it even more if the film had been projected behind the actors as they performed. This show isn't so much a stage version of the film as it is a reflection of it, on dirty glass.
It would be silly to suggest that a movie can't be the basis for a fine stage play; the theater, especially the musical theater, has been drawing on the movies for material for years. But this Pulp Fiction, which is being staged in repertory with the Feast of Fools' Reservoir Dogs, isn't really an adaptation, or a reinterpretation, or even, like the staged Brady Bunch episodes of a few years ago, a parody. It's just a bunch of fans acting out their favorite movie for us.
In a sense, it's almost not theater. It's more a ritual, an homage, an act of veneration, akin to the religious ceremonies out of which theater grew. This time, however, the object of devotion is a pop-culture deity: the hipster-slacker-god Tarantino (and, to a lesser extent, Travolta).
None of this is to say that there's no talent in the show. Michael J. Alessandro, who--reportedly with the blessing of the auteur himself--prepared the scripts for, directed and stars in both Pulp and Dogs, demonstrates some poise as the hit man Vincent Vega. But putting yourself in a position to be compared to John Travolta isn't the best way to showcase yourself. Many of the other cast members are attractive and/or gifted--Angelica Frost, who plays Mia Wallace, manages the impressive feat of looking more beautiful than Thurman--but too many of the actors have been directed with one eye on the film. Mike Saar, who plays (among several other roles) "Pumpkin," the stickup man played in the film by Tim Roth, attempts a cockney accent, none too convincingly.
Why? Though Tarantino's script does specify that the character "has a slight working-class English accent," nothing in the story requires this--he was probably written this way only because Tarantino had Roth in mind for the role. Saar is handicapped by this unwise choice. On the other hand, Danielle Palmer, who plays the boxer's girlfriend--played in the film by the Portuguese Maria de Medeiros--uses no accent, and gives one of the show's better performances. Marty Berger, who delivers the monologue done in the film by Christopher Walken, starts from scratch with the part, and, as a result, his one scene is the evening's best (I hear that Berger, as Joe the boss, did the best work in Reservoir Dogs as well).
As a director, Alessandro shows some cleverness in responding to the formidable staging challenges of Pulp. Unlike Dogs, which was deliberately written to be set-bound, with a mind to economical production requirements, Tarantino's sophomore effort, with its dozens of characters and settings and its compound-fractured time lines, is proscenium-unfriendly.
The trouble--from my point of view, if not the fans'--is that Alessandro hasn't expended his efforts on any objectives other than plausibly cramming the script onto a stage. He hasn't offered us any pressing reason it ought to be there; he hasn't made it his own. The one element of Pulp Fiction which I thought might take on more punch was the violence. The immediacy of live performance might amplify the horror. But in this production, at least, it doesn't--it just seems like the usual, cringingly executed stage violence.
Alessandro's only liberties with Pulp Fiction are peripheral flourishes meant to make it, well, pulpier: In-jokes referencing other movies, Travolta iconography and '70s TV are inserted. The character of Butch, played in the film by Bruce Willis, is played here by an Asian actor (the buff Jim Yue), so Alessandro adds a few lines explaining that he's a Vietnam war baby. This doesn't change the interpretation of the character, but still, it's a start--it suggests a new way of looking at the material.
Of course, Tarantino himself draws heavily on his own enthusiasms--crime fiction, '70s pop, Hong Kong action films--but he also transforms them. You see what inspired his work, but you'd never mistake it for someone else's work.
Aside from the aesthetic question of how wise an expenditure of theatrical energy this show is, it also raises an interesting legal question. Put simply: Is it?
According to the press material, Alessandro sent a bundle of clippings about his October production of Reservoir Dogs to Tarantino, and in return received an e-mail from the director reading, "When are you going to do Pulp Fiction?" It's hard not to sympathize with Alessandro's position--if you're a local theater director in Phoenix, and the hottest young writer/director, more or less, in the world asks you when you're going to do one of his scripts, you really don't want to pass up that opportunity.
Tarantino, currently at work on his own theatrical venture--he's playing the killer in a Broadway revival of Wait Until Dark, opposite Marisa Tomei--could not be reached for comment. But Brandon Perle, manager of licensing and clearances for Miramax (and an ASU grad), says that, assuming the e-mail was authentic, Tarantino's permission is good enough, as the director does indeed retain the rights to his own writing.
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Still, Perle's of the opinion that "any time you do something like that without a written agreement, you're crazy, especially when you're dealing with e-mail. It's even more dangerous after the fact. You know: 'I'm assuming the play rights are $50 million. You didn't sign an agreement, so I'm assuming you wanted to pay $50 million.' That's an exaggeration, but you get the point. I have college kids who come to me all the time who want to use this stuff for auditions, and I give 'em a deal to sign. I don't charge 'em, but I give 'em something to sign.
"The problem," Perle continues, "is that the next thing you know, somebody's put a mustache on Uma Thurman in the poster or something. [Alessandro's show doesn't do that.] Or they might use the poster without putting the credits on it that we are required to do by law. You know, somebody's name's gotta be 75 percent bigger than somebody else's or whatever, and if it's not, we could get in trouble."
All the same, if Perle's description of Tarantino is accurate, Alessandro is probably safe enough: "It can't always be about money," says Perle. "We still have that love of independent film here at Miramax. So does Quentin. He's good people."
Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction: The Stage Production continues through Saturday, March 7, at the Third Street Theatre at Phoenix Center, 1202 North Third Street.