THE BASICS: THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE, a world premiere stage adaptation of the 1976 indie film written by John Cassavetes, presented by Torn Space Theater, directed by Dan Shanahan, opened on February 15 and runs through March 9, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30, plus one final show, Sunday, March 10 at 7:30 at Torn Space, 612 Fillmore Avenue close to Paderewski Drive (note: off street parking next to the theater and across Fillmore). www.tornspacetheater.com Cozy bar open before and after the performances. Runtime: 90 minutes without intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Cosmo Vitelli at first seems to be merely a shallow, smooth talking owner of a strip club in Los Angeles called “Crazy Horse West.” Yet, we come to appreciate that he truly believes in the virtues of performance art and, even though he knows that most of his paying customers only come to look at the naked “girls,” he works hard to keep the club afloat. He treats his “girls” and his emcee with love like the family he never had and indeed embraces his girlfriend’s mother like the mother he never knew. Unfortunately, Cosmo has a gambling problem, and on the very night he celebrates getting out from under one debt, he willingly gets duped into a high-stakes poker game where, within a few hands, he ends up owing many, many thousands to the mob. Once again for Cosmo, the cold, hard, unfeeling “outside” world of violent crime has forced its way “inside” the warm, cozy, artistically supportive loving “family” that Cosmo has created. And, it gets worse. The mob bosses make him an offer: if he’s willing to kill a Chinese bookie from a rival mob, his gambling debt will be forgiven. Although he’s a Korean War combat veteran, Cosmo is more of a lover than a fighter, and now he’s between a rock and a hard place.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: This is not an easy play to follow, by any means, for three reasons: First, as mentioned several times in these reviews, adapting one medium (film) to another (stage) is fraught with peril. Second, the original complete film script has been lost, as Artistic Director Dan Shanahan writes in his “Director’s Note,” forcing Torn Space Theatre to painstakingly watch the movie while writing down dialog and inferring from what they saw what the original script said. And, last but certainly not least important, this project started with a John Cassavetes film, and those are never easy to follow even under the best of circumstances.
In a 1976 review of the movie in the New York Times, film critic Vincent Canby wrote: “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is like the last three of the director’s films (A Woman Under the Influence, Husbands and Minnie and Moskowitz) in the way it resolutely refuses to come to a point strong or interesting enough to support the loving care that’s gone into its production, particularly on the part of the actors.”
Mr. Canby continues:”Mr. Cassavetes’s way of film making is to set up actors, whom he admires, trusts and finds endlessly fascinating, in situations in which they are as likely to philosophize about acting as about life. Acting—performance—is a legitimate metaphor for certain kinds of lives but by the end of “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” you may rightfully expect more than you have actually received. This includes a lot of enigmatic snatches of Cosmo’s nightclub shows, bits and pieces of intentionally awful sketches, as well as Cosmo’s relationships to his ‘girls’ and his emcee…”
So, if Torn Space co-founders Dan Shanahan and Melissa Meola Shanahan were trying to be true to Cassavetes’s vision, one could say that they succeeded. It is hard to follow but there’s no doubting oodles of loving care with this production.
A thought kept recurring: While we all love the Kander and Ebb musical CABARET, would we be so accepting of the actual “degenerate” cabaret performances from the 1920’s Weimar Republic? How you answer that might indicate how you’ll like this show which includes the emcee performing the rape scene from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE using an “American Girl” sized doll as a puppet to play Blanche Dubois to his Stanley Kowalski.
So, as you may have gathered by now, this play isn’t for the “faint of heart” audience member, nor is it for actors who, each and every one, jumps in to his or her role so convincingly that, and here’s that word “love” again, you can tell that this play is a labor of love. In the world of opera, the equivalent to “break a leg” is the Italian “In bocca al lupo” which encourages the performer to “jump into the mouth of the wolf.” Well, each and every actor does exactly that.
Director Shanahan put some first-class talent on stage.
And Director Shanahan put some first-class talent on stage. Talent that, to quote Vincent Canby again, provided that “loving care.”
Stan Klimecko plays Cosmo Vitelli, the fellow who loves his performers, his club, and his life’s mission with such fierce sincerity that there’s never a false note. Klimecko’s experience and way of moving around a stage provide that calm assurance that let’s you know that you’re in good hands. In a play with so many bewildering moments, that’s important.
And another old hand at the acting game is Chris Brandjes playing “MC,” a role requiring a great actor (Brandjes) to play a rather sorry excuse for a host. That is not easy.
Also very impressive, and another member of the stellar cast of THE COLOR PURPLE recently seen at Buff State, was a relative newcomer, Gabriella McKinley, just a college sophomore. If you saw her as “Shug Avery” and wondered if she could sustain that high level of performance in a professional production, the answer is yes. Here she played “Rachel,” the stripper-girlfriend, and never missed a beat. Local directors: keep your eye on her. Like her classmate Janae’ Leonard recently seen as “Bessie” in NATIVE SON at the Paul Robeson Theatre, McKinley is going places.
What takes this adaptation to a special place is the casting of three drag performers as the Burlesque ‘girls.’
But, and here kudos go to director Shanahan, what takes this adaptation to a special place is the casting of three drag performers as the Burlesque “girls.” Kalub Thompson is especially “dangerous” as he plays two roles – stripper, but also mob hitman – adding a confounding of reality that would, I’m sure, amuse John Cassavetes. The other two burlesque performers in drag are “Fab Fabia” and Matthew Ritter whose regular drag persona is “Ophelia Self.”
Rounding out the ensemble very believably are Carmen Swans as Rachel’s mother, the very imposing Victor M. Morales as Hitman (#1) and Gary Andrews Stieglitz as Hitman (#2). While in real life Morales and Stieglitz are the absolute nicest of guys, on stage they have developed a well-deserved reputation for incipient danger.
Kristina Siegel’s Scenic Design, Frank Napolski’s Lighting Design, and Justin Rowland’s Sound Design all work very well together to create, and here I’m going to again reference 1920’s Berlin, the flavor of German Expressionism with the shocking sound effects, the strobe lighting and other special effects, the heavily raked stage, disorienting fog, and oddly angled windows and doors to stage right. One of the tenants of German Expressionism was that art, especially stories that have people at their center, has the power to effect profound changes in society. That’s kind of what Cosmo Vitelli, the strip-club owner, believes.
So, in the end, this is not an “easy” play on any level, as is usually the case at Torn Space. But, equally the case, you won’t be able to get it out of your head. It will probably leave you scratching said head, but the energy and honesty that have gone into it, on the part of everyone concerned, certainly makes it worth considering for an evening out.
Note: This is also not an “easy” play to rate on the five “Buffalo” scale, so I’m going to give it three-and-a-half Buffalos and create a hybrid description as follows: “I still have my issues, but if the genre and content are up your alley, this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If the genre and content intrigue you, I would make a real effort to attend.”
Photos courtesy Torn Space
UP NEXT: Torn Space Theater will be an active participant in the 2019 Response Festival starting in June. For details, visit www.tornspacetheater.com
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!