Blood Simple

The Fool's Tree Theatre

SOMETIMES IT SUCKS to be a critic. Whenever I feel really mixed or happily befuddled about a play, people read the review and then ask me, "So... did you like it?" Who cares? I want
to say--what does "like" mean? Sometimes, you can like something without knowing precisely why, and it may be a while before you figure it out. Take Quentin Tarantino's work, for example. Yeah, I "like" it, a lot. But to articulate his underlying moralism and post-postmodern skepticism--well, it can sound like a lot of stale air, at least in comparison to the complex pleasures of the work itself.

Nevertheless, that's the task at hand, so get out the Glade. I think of Tarantino as someone only my own generation can truly "get" (though my 60-something parents dig him too). He's got the basics down pat: powerful visual sense, an original musical ear, a masterful grasp of dramatic structure, and an affinity for actors. But there's something else going on: He takes problematic issues like violence and drugs and turns them inside-out. First he says, I like this, I think it's cool--and seduces us. Then his realism kicks in, along with uncool consequences (a syringe in the heart, a young man bleeding to death, guys cleaning a boy's skull off the backseat, etc.). For better or worse, this messy moralism hits a chord in a lot of us '70s kids.

Like the guys at Fool's Tree Theatre, who present a stage version of Reservoir Dogs in their closet-sized coffehouse/theater. Patronizing as it sounds, I find this gesture incredibly endearing--maybe because aforementioned parents met at a coffeehouse/theater in the '60s, or maybe because it shows that some young people--Tarantino freaks no less--still have faith in theater and want to shape it according to their own sensibilities. Or maybe they just thought it would be a kick to play cops and robbers. As Fool's Tree artistic director Tim Uren explained, "[The film] has a kinesthetic sense of, 'Wow, it'd be fun to do that.'"

But they've got a hairy mess of a task on their hands if they want to marry the visual potency of film with the real-time risks of low-budget theater. Perhaps they don't--as the program notes, even the film was only one version of the script; this is another. But if we who've seen the film are to take this as an autonomous piece, it's got to work double-time. Take the opening scene. In the film, we get a charming vérité bit with the stars sitting in a diner, debating everyday minutae such as the meaning of "Like a Virgin." Onstage, the realism is intensified--for better and worse. It's kinetic to enter the theater space and see that the actors are already seated and b.s.-ing in character; we feel like we're crashing a clubhouse. But since the audience takes forever to get seated, and the official dialogue hasn't begun, we start to tune-out the muted ad-libs. In short, realistic becomes prosaic.

The story, for those who haven't seen the movie, is about a group of robbers who've been hired to hit a diamond store, but find out too late that one of them's a psycho and one's an undercover cop. It's about loyalty, friendship, degrees of evil, bad '70s pop, and bloodletting. At a recent Guthrie forum Arthur Miller said that these days, it's impossible to present gun violence onstage convincingly. And as the Greeks knew, it's better to suggest violence than to show it (a technique perfected in Pulp Fiction). I tend to think that a good actor can convince us of anything. But watching this show I gained a new appreciation for blood capsules, and wished they used twice as many. For example, Mr. Orange, who's been shot in the gut, doesn't seem to be losing much blood at all. It might have helped if Aaron Van Koningsveld hadn't been so damned energetic on his deathbed.

If you're willing to forgive these technical problems, you'll be rewarded by a few fine performances. Paul Backer makes the complicated Nice Guy Eddie all his own, as do Daniel Rangel as Mr. Pink and Alejandro Ortiz as Orange's boss. But they have difficulty with the off-the-cuff ease and subtlety of Tarantino's crude humor. When Backer delivers the line "There's Carlos--he's the bartender, he's a wetback, he's a friend of mine," for instance, he lacks the timing and credibility to locate its humor.

Ultimately, this production doesn't provide an answer to the obvious question--that is, why? Maybe Arthur Miller is right. This script relies heavily on realistic violence for its edge, as well as supertight acting. Neither is quite there yet in this version, and the enthusiasm is more compelling than the execution--or executions.

Reservoir Dogs runs through May 25; call 822-1225.

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