"BRING THEE OUT THE GIMP!"
Mom thought Bard Fiction was not only the best thing we saw Monday night, but also that it might be the best script she's seen in the whole festival. This from a woman who'd never laid eyes on Pulp Fiction until that very morning. Well played, Tedious Brief.
Mom felt she should do her homework before she saw the play, since she's not one to run out and see every new Quentin Tarantino film in the theaters; she's not the sort even to rent them, for that matter. I can understand her reluctance. Tarantino films have reputation for violence. But, as our President would say, this was a teachable moment. Though I, too, was leery of Tarantino many years ago, I quickly grew to love his writing, and to admire the way his films seem more violent than they actually are. Though bloody, and often over the top, much of the actual violence is artfully edited or off-screen entirely. Despite all his films' slick action, it's Tarantino's writing and memorable characters, from work like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, that have stuck with me.
But all this is hard to convey in my own words so I found her this synopsis, and a film clip from Pulp Fiction online, which now eludes me: it's the final scene in the diner, where Jules faces down the two petty thieves at the beginning of his own personal path to redemption. As she clicked the "play" button on the final scene from Pulp Fiction, Mom double-checked with me -- "This isn't going to be violent is it? No one's going to get shot?" "No," I replied. "Everyone lives to see the end of the scene. No worries." When she got to Jules' big speech at the end, she understood why I liked the film so much. And then she was ready for the iambic pentameter Elizabethan version that is Bard Fiction.
I put this production on this year's Top 10 list, not just for the production's gimmick, but for the involvement of a great team of artists. Bard Fiction is clearly a labor of love-and why not? These folks have the chance to toy with a great story (and one they're clearly enamored with) and, in some small way, to take their own shots at playing these great roles. The night we went, the large audience for the show was laughing uproariously at every little thing. Each familiar moment from the film, once transformed, had a fun wink-and-nod to the original version tucked inside it. But even Mom, without benefit of the whole film for reference, still enjoyed herself enormously.
It's not easy hacking a two-and-a-half-hour film down to under an hour -- not to mention, then putting it in verse. But writers Aaron Greer, Ben Tallen and Brian Watson-Jones add their skills to some of the work already done in the epic online Tarantino verse project, and they make some smart choices about how to condense the story into something manageable, but still recognizable. Naturally, some fun stuff has to go, but what remains is most enjoyable, and is arguably the heart of the film.
The adventures of hired killers Vincent (Grant Henderson) and Julius (Clarence Wethern) are the spine of both the larger film and this smaller play. In many ways, it begins and ends with them. In the stage version, we seem them from multiple perspectives; they provide the key to the time shifts in the narrative. Director Carin Bratlie's staging is wonderfully clever -- particularly in those moments that get revisited. Rather than set the breakfast killing scene and the diner standoff in the same way each time the story circles back, when we return to those scenes anew, the configuration on stage is tilted at a different angle to put different emphasis on different characters each time. The production is full of such knowing nods to the play's source, and the conventions of film are cleverly rejiggered for the stage.
The use of music in Bard Fiction is also particularly good. Incorporation of music into Tarantino's films is so distinct, so memorable -- the stage version of the story really needed to pay homage to that somehow, but how to do it? Bard Fiction brings on the live music stylings of Lingua Luna (Rhiannon Fisk, Jen Rand, Annie Jane Reierson). Recognizable songs and instrumental tracks from the film are given a Renaissance Festival flavor in keeping with the overall stage production's cheeky-but-loving attitude to its source material.
There are also a couple of inspired twists: the sexually abusive pawn shop hillbillies of the film are played on stage by three women instead (Noe Tallen, Amber Bjork and Anissa Brazill); Wethern takes on the mantle of Christopher Walken (vocal inflections and all) to bequeath that infamous pocket watch to Butch (Paul Rutledge). That latter choice also helps the production shorthand Butch's lengthy part of the story into a much leaner package. Butch still gets many key moments, but in this production he's fully relegated to subplot status. (Besides, who can resist a good Hamlet reference?)
(Side note -- Clarence Wethern and John Skelley [of Jurassic Dork fame] really should sit down and have a drink together during the festival. They're two of the whitest guys I know, and they're both playing Fringe roles this year that were first played on film by Samuel L. Jackson. Only at the Fringe do weird things like that happen side by side in the same eleven day stretch.)
Mom was my control subject for this one. If she'd been lost or bored, then despite the raucous laughter of the rest of the crowd, this production would still have been just one big in-joke - one you either got, or didn't. But Mom loved it - from her experience, I can attest to the fact that the story clearly plays well on its own, whether you are intimately acquainted with the film or not. It's just that much more fun if you understand the other level the play is working on.
Fringe performance details for this show:
Bard Fiction by Tedious Brief Productions is on stage at the University of Minnesota Rarig Center Thrust for two more performances: August 7 @ 10 pm & August 8 @ 7 pm.
Check back regularly throughout the Fringe Festival for more short reviews on mnartists.org, sent in from our intrepid performance critics
About the author: Matthew A. Everett's latest production, Medea & Jason: Rubicon Waltz, was an entry in the American College Theater Festival for Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs. On stage in Minneapolis, his play Two Left Feet was voted the audience favorite in Commedia Beauregard's "Master Works: The MOBA (Museum of Bad Art) Plays." His play Leave (afterdark theatre company) made Lavender Magazine's Top 10 List for Theater in 2008. Matthew is the recipient of a Drama-Logue Award for Outstanding Writing for the Theater, and is a three-time recipient of support from the Minnesota State Arts Board. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Yale School of Drama. His blog about the Minnesota Fringe Festival (and theater in general) can be found online at Twin Cities Daily Planet. Sample scenes, monologues, and further information on Matthew and his work can be found online at www.matthewaeverett.com and, of course, at www.mnartists.org/matthew_everett