The Competing Narratives of “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie”
By ANTHONY CHASE
The bold and adventurous spirit of Torn Space Theater turns out to be a perfect match for a stage adaptation of John Cassavetes’ 1976 film, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Director Dan Shanahan and scenic designer Kristina Siegel are certainly one of the most formidable artistic teams on the Buffalo theater scene. With this show, they have devised an impressive theatrical event, and one that could certainly have life beyond Buffalo.
Cassavetes (1929-1989) was a pioneer of Independent Film. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, with its plot about a guy who gets mixed up with the mob, is his lone “genre” film. It is a gangster movie. The play follows the film’s plot faithfully, while translating Cassavetes’ cinematic style to the stage with striking invention.
Here we meet Cosmo Vittelli, played with crude sincerity by Stan Klimecko. Cosmo is the owner of a sleazy burlesque club called the “Crazy Horse West.” The guy has a rough and worldly exterior, but in reality, he is a total innocent and has no class. He takes great care to stage the club’s musical numbers in a way he thinks is artistic, and he looks on the staff as family, but his show is actually seedy, with the cast singing unlikely numbers, a cappella, while his customers clamor to see the naked girls.
As the plot begins, Cosmo is making the final payment to a loan shark, retiring a debt that has dogged him for seven years. He is at last free. He has “life by the balls.” He sees himself, at last, as a great man.
This moment of greatness will be short-lived.
To celebrate his new life, Cosmo rents a limousine and takes his girls out for a night of drinking and gambling. By the time the night is over, he is again in breathtaking debt. This time, the mob wants him to commit a murder to cover his losses.
The style of the film, which makes heavy use of handheld camera, allows images to slip in and out of the frame, often giving the viewer an imperfect view of events, and underscoring the precariousness of the protagonist’s situation. Cassavetes builds his theme with dialogue that often meanders or seems to be casually improvised, the hallmark of cinéma-vérité with which his name is nearly synonymous.
To approximate the impact of the camera work in Cassavetes’ film, Shanahan and Seigel have turned the playing area of the Torn Space Theater sideways so that the stage is wider than the audience’s peripheral vision. When seated at the center of the house, it is not possible to see the entire stage in a single gaze. They use this physical constraint in the first minutes of the play, placing actors far left and far right, and sometimes confronting us with disembodied off stage voices, which we try to locate. They fully and constantly exploit the horizontal expanse, sweeping the action from side to side. At the same time, Siegel has placed a silver curtain along the entire breadth of the stage, which actors slide open and shut, signaling rapid changes in location, or the limits of Cosmo’s vision and understanding. The effect makes the world of the play always unstable, always shifting. The impact is intensified by Frank Napolski’s lighting design.
Adding to this sense of instability, when the curtain opens, a structure made of raw lumber and reflective Mylar is revealed. Again, we are in a backstage space that an audience would not typically see, or in a space that is perpetually under construction – insecure, unpredictable, and unreliable. The stage area is on a rake, tilted, and always precarious. As the play progresses, walls and floors will turn out to be penetrable and provisional.
The plot follows two competing narratives. In the first, Cosmo sees himself as a great man who starts with nothing and builds a great club – lucrative and creatively vital. In this version of his life, he is a mensch, a good guy, a man of integrity. He may not have class, but he has style. He takes his girls out to celebrate in high style. He gives them corsages. He invites his girlfriend’s mother to come along. He may run a sleazy strip joint, but he has higher aspirations. He listens to his performer’s artistic hopes.
Always, on the periphery of this version of his life, however, is the threat that any man’s life can be bought, or that he can be forced into someone else’s narrative. That is exactly what happens when Cosmo ends up back in debt.
Everything about Cosmo’s world is precarious. The club is not attracting enough customers. He has gone from one debt to another, and now the mob wants him to commit a murder in order to buy his life back. He knows this is a setup, but he has no real options. In this new narrative he is not a great man. He is a patsy.
The play is more centered on the Crazy Horse West than the film. Here, Shanahan has again emphasized the tentative nature of identity by populating the club with characters of ambiguous sexuality and various races. The use of masks and the doubling of characters further heighten this sense of shifting or constructed identities. This is a place where identity is provisional, for sale, or in risk of forcible appropriation.
At one point, a gangster, played by Victor Morales, approaches a burlesque performer who has a man’s body and a woman’s accessories, played by Asian American actor Fab Fabia. He gives her a ring and informs her that she is going to be his girl now. She happily accepts the ring, but as she walks away declares, “That was weird!” Has her identity been purchased? Is she now a gangster’s girl? She doesn’t know what narrative she’s in, but she likes the jewelry.
At another moment, a waitress, played by Kalub Thompson, auditions to be a burlesque performer, at the club. When Rachel, played by Gabriella McKinley, enters to find her boyfriend alone with a partially unclothed Thompson, who is giving a solo performance, she goes berserk. She knocks the other girl down and beats her in the face. As Cosmo pulls Rachel away he asserts his identity. He is not a cheat. “I’m a club owner! I deal in girls!” Rachel is not so sure. Multiple identities and narratives can occur simultaneously.
Rachel is African American in both the film and the play, but Shanahan heightens the moment by casting Thompson, a young African American man as the auditioner. Rachel perceives a threat to her status at the club and with Cosmos amplified at many levels when a younger African American girl gets naked for her boyfriend in this world where gender, age, and race have shifting meanings, and where everything can be monetized. Indeed, identities are always shifting here.
In one spectacular sequence, Cosmo decides to take the staff out to a movie. Again, the narrative of the happy workplace family is running simultaneously to the gangster narrative. The night at the movies is also a pretext for going to Chinatown to scope out the “Chinese bookie” of the title.
The film they see is A Streetcar Named Desire. The actors mingle with the actual Torn Space audience to watch the film, which is acted out by the “Crazy Horse West” MC, played by Chris Brandjes. The scene we see is the moment in which Mitch confronts Blanche, demanding to see her in the light of a bare bulb, insisting that she reveal the reality of her situation. Blanche protests that she doesn’t want reality, she wants magic. As Mitch tries to force himself upon her in order to “get” what he’s “been missing,” Blanche proposes another narrative in which he marries her. When he refuses, telling her she isn’t clean enough to be in his mother’s house, she banishes him, and threatens to throw the scene into total chaos by shouting “Fire!”
This scene from Streetcar … is a perfect parallel to the maneuverings of Cosmo to take control of his own life’s narrative, which descends further and further into chaos. As the gangster narrative that he so wants to resist, takes over his life, Shanahan and Siegel further pull apart the physical reality of the stage. In mid assassination, Cosmo calls his club and is dismayed to realize that his beloved show is falling apart. The call is disrupted by flashing lights and increasingly fractured sound. Justin Rowland has provided a most affecting sound design.
At another moment, Rachel demands to know what narrative Cosmo is living. When he hides the truth from her, she exits the narrative of his life. With his beloved Rachel gone, Cosmo tries to create a positive alternative plot in which she has gone on to the cliché of “bigger and better” things. By contrast, when Cosmo shows up at the house of Rachel’s mother with an injury, the older woman tells him that she doesn’t want to know the narrative. She tells him that she loves him, but he must leave without telling her anything.
The narrative of every life is open to fluctuation right up until the point of death, when narrative stops and only interpretation can change. Cassavetes’ film plays this to the fullest, and the stage adaptation maximizes the impact of this ultimate narrative climax – right up until the ambiguous conclusion of the play.
Before this occurs, we see the burlesque characters parade across the closed silver curtain in a video display, created by Brian Milbrand, that gradually degrades into abstraction and disorder.
The ensemble used to realize this Shanahan and Siegel’s vision for The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is fully committed at every moment – and assisted greatly by Jessica Wegrzyn’s gritty and redolent costume design.
Stan Klimencko is rather more unsavory than the Cosmo of the film, played by Ben Gazzara. Still, he is affecting and sympathetic, and makes for a persuasive protagonist.
Chris Brandjes transforms himself into the gnome-like MC, devilishly delving into musical numbers, while plaintively bemoaning his under-appreciated career backstage, a perfect contrast of public and private identities that serve to amplify the themes of the play.
Carmen Swans creates a kindly if weary presence as loving but cynical Mother. Gabriella McKinley gives a strong performance as Rachel, making her gradual journey out of the narrative of Cosmo’s life clear and convincing.
Victor Morales again plays a heavy and again nails the role as the lead mobster. He artfully walks the simultaneous dimensions of a man who sincerely likes Cosmo, but would also happily have him killed.
Gary Andrews Steiglitz channels his wholesome good looks into the smarmiest character of the play. He is a sociopathic hitman, whose exit from the play is highly satisfying.
Kalub Thompson makes a memorable impression as multiple characters, including a hitman, a burlesque performer, the aforementioned auditioning waitress, and the “Chinese Bookie” of the title. Shanahan deploys Thompson’s athletic body to marvelous visual effect, alternately revealing and concealing the actor, who morphs into a variety of personae and situations. In one signature Torn Space moment, Thompson simply enters the stage and with nearly ritualistic gesture, clears away the playing cards left behind after Cosmos fateful card game. It is a divine moment of narrative through imagery, and is followed by multiple others.
Fab Fabia and Matthew Rittler, as burlesque performers of fluid gender, project distinctive individual personalities. Fabia contrasts the beaming smiles of her character’s onstage personality with her offstage sarcasm and skepticism. Rittler creates a performer with onstage confidence, but offstage insecurity and doubt. The casting of two performers from the drag world adds to the texture of the production while advancing its themes, and injecting an added element of fun that frequently contrasts or even mocks the action. Fabia and Rittler deliver effectively.
In short, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a triumph for Torn Space and for the continued Shanahan/Siegel collaboration. Its melding of the company’s avant-garde aesthetic and Cassavetes’ narrative originality is fascinating and ingenious.