Dan Shanahan on adapting "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie"
By ANTHONY CHASE
Dan Shanahan, artistic director of Torn Space theater, has long been fascinated by the work of independent film pioneer John Cassavetes (1929 – 1989). The two have a lot in common. Like Shanahan, Cassavetes was not especially interested in the tropes of traditional narrative storytelling -- much to the consternation of many of his early critics. Also like Shanahan, Cassavetes enjoyed working with a collaborative ensemble – a tribe of actors who would enrich the work through improvisation. Cassavetes often worked with the same actors again and again.
“I could identify with that!” says Shanahan.
Last winter, the avant-garde director went on a binge of watching Cassavetes’ films with a mind to a possible stage adaptation. The choices were rich. At first he gravitated toward the 1977 film, Opening Night. He later decided that the film, in which the character played by Cassavetes’ real-life wife, actress Gena Rowlands tells her director, “I’m not acting!” was perhaps too self-reflective for Shanahan’s own purposes.
“Too daunting!” he exclaims.
He finally decided on the 1976 film, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, the story of Cosmo Vittelli, owner of a sleazy burlesque club on the Sunset strip who gets mixed up with mobsters who offer to retire his debt in exchange for a murder. The result is a world premiere stage adaptation of a film classic that opened this week at Torn Space Theater.
The tale of how Shanahan obtained performance rights and began the adaptation is interesting.
He began by tracking down the original film production company, Faces Distribution, and was eventually told that he would need to contact Al Ruban, himself an interesting personality. Ruban was the film's producer, but he actually appears in the opening scene as a loan shark, opposite Cosmo, played by Ben Gazzarra (who appears in four Cassavetes films). Ruban was also credited as cinematographer.
Shanahan wrote Ruban a letter explaining his idea, and requesting rights for a stage adaptation. He didn’t have to wait long for a response. About a month later, he received a letter back from Ruban saying that he had looked into Torn Space Theater, and that he thought this was a good fit. There was a signed contract attached.
It was as simple as that.
Ruban also told Shanahan that he would be happy to provide him with a script, but a couple of weeks later contacted him again to say that he thought he’d secured a script in a strong box but was mistaken. There was no script. He did provide Shanahan with the “continuity dialogue.” And so, armed with Cassavetes’ film and the scripted dialogue – no context, no description -- Shanahan began the process of adaptation.
“Stage language does not correspond to the jump cuts and style of the film,” Shanahan observes. “A film can change location with total fluidity. The stage is more static. To address that issue, (set designer) Kristina Siegel and I came up with a moving curtain that could realign locations quickly. Our actors change the locations in full view of the audience.
Siegel and Shanahan made efforts to reveal the mechanics of theater in the staging, an aesthetic that reflects Shanahan’s work method, and also Siegel’s background as a scenic artist trained in Berlin, with a strong background in Brechtian staging.
“We were able to build on the film’s setting in a sleazy burlesque house – a live performance venue,” says Shanahan. “Our production has a seedy show biz quality. We used this as our narrative entry point. Cosmo recognizes the artistic merit and potential of the performances there, but all the customers care about is seeing naked girls.
“Also, taking from Cassavetes’ working method,” Shanahan continues, “we provided room for improvisation within the script. We would sometimes provide a scenario and allow the actors to take control of the dialogue through improv and invention. We have a cast of nine, so there is double casting.
Stan Klimecko plays Cosmos Vitteli, the character originally created by Ben Gazzara in the film. Chris Branjes plays MC; with Carmen Swans as Mother; Kalub Thompson as Hitman/Burlesque; Gabriella McKinley as Rachel; Victor Morales and Gary Andrews Stieglitz as hitmen; and Fab Fabia and Matthew Rittler as Burlesque Performers.
“We were also able to use the idea of improvisation and invention to highlight the idea of constructing an illusion, an identity, in order to be able to interact with others. We all have identities that we build up, but those identities can then break down and have to be reconstructed. Our actors were conscious of artifice and of constructing their identities.”
In this regard, Shanahan said it was helpful to work with two drag performers who had never been on a theater stage before.
“We didn’t want the performance aspects of our show to be ‘strip teasy,” says Shanahan. “We wanted something more visceral. Drag queens were very helpful. Also, in creating ‘Crazy Horse West,’ the burlesque club in the story, we knew we needed to have some interaction with our live audience. Drag queens understand audience interaction.”
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie will be performed at Torn Space Theater, Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle, 612 Fillmore Avenue Thursday - Saturday at 7:30 p.m., through March 9, plus Sunday, March 10 at 7:30 p.m. www.tornspacetheater.com