Widely considered filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus, the 1994 film “Pulp Fiction,” has since become a staple of postmodern crime cinema. Its unconventional story structure allowing it to explore the various perspectives of a motley collection of morally-ambiguous characters, “Pulp Fiction” blended the shock and awe of its director’s signature approach to graphic violence with an almost Shakespearean journey through life, death, redemption and fate. It’s really no surprise that there exists now an adaptation of Tarantino’s masterpiece in the vein of that very same 16th century poet and dramatist. Dubbed “Bard Fiction,” the ambitious theater adaptation fell between the ranks of either being a fascinating dissection of the 1994 classic it was based on or merely a self-referential oddity on the borderline between parody and pastiche. Still managing to hone the ironic chemistry between the film’s ultra-violence and punchy humor, “Bard Fiction” was a unique pleasure.
Known for not only its ever-changing timeline but its considerable devotion to lengthy monologues and casual conversations inserted into the main story as well, “Pulp Fiction” seemed almost destined to evoke the works of William Shakespeare. With the narratives of both Tarantino and Shakespeare’s work often sprawling from their centerpieces into fairly compelling side stories, these adjacent subjects usually work to clue the audience into the bigger picture through the perspectives of multiple characters. Almost always colliding with the main characters and their journey by the end of the story, the secondary narratives prove to be integral to what ultimately unfolds by the story’s conclusion. One of Tarantino’s most notable stories of this type lies, of course, in “Pulp Fiction,” which sees the disparate paths of a duo of hitmen, a washed-up boxer, an aspiring actress and a ruthless crime boss all converge in a hardboiled crime drama.
The shifting storylines of “Pulp Fiction” and the even more unstable characters of its seedy crime world provided the ideal groundwork for writers Aaron Greer, Ben Tallen and Brian Watson-Jones to bring the action to the live stage. As “Bard Fiction” arrived in Charlotte this month under the direction of James R. Cartee, the Duke Energy Theater quickly became the breeding ground of one of the most unusual shows I’ve ever experienced. From its distinctly minimal set design to its off-kilter crew of Lords and Ladies, “Bard Fiction” ignited with an uneasy anticipation. While I was eager to once again leap into the compelling and quick-witted realm of Tarantino’s opus, its turn as a Shakespearean epic threatened to push its convoluted anthology past the point of casual comprehension.
As the adaptation began, it was almost instantly held together by the phenomenal lead performances of actors Tom Ollis and Kel Williams. With Ollis being no stranger to Tarantino’s work as he conjured Michael Madsen’s Vic Vega in Citizens of the Universe’s 2009 adaptation of “Reservoir Dogs,” he effortlessly stepped into the shoes of hitman Vincent Vega (known as Vincenzio de la Vega in the play). Alongside young Charlotte actress Kel Williams as Jules Winnfield (Julius Win-field), the iconic roles once played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson took new form in the charming stage duo. Just as Ollis spat out Shakespeare like a peculiar second language, so did Williams as the two kicked off the vengeful journey ahead.
With Jules’ impassioned and iconic Bible verse still echoing across the theater, even after the two suited mercenaries enacted their bitter comeuppance on a pack of double-crossers, the tongue-twisted theatrics of Shakespeare continued as the stage reset for the next scene. While it was somewhat played off as the purposeful chaos of theater, the redressing of the stage between a number of scenes often came off as a bit disorganized. As the entrance of makeshift horse carriages collided with armies of disoriented extras, the play held a few moments of awkward pause which somewhat dampered what was meant to be a cut-throat and quick-witted drama.
While its stage direction might’ve needed tidying, the production’s setting at the Duke Energy Theater was not without its unique theatrical benefits to the play. As the opening scene with Vincent and Jules saw Ollis and Williams waltzing up the stairs of the auditorium, climbing their way to the balcony just above centerstage, it offered some excitement and allure to the secreted conversations between the two gangsters. As they talked of malintentions for their enemies and infatuations with the rubbing of feet, they strolled between the shadows of the spotlight, just above the eyesight of an unexpecting audience. Ultimately playing their part in other scenes of the play, including numerous that found Elisha Bryant’s seductive Mia Wallace (Lady Mia of Wallace) glaring deviously at the events unfolding below, the stage and balcony offered an intriguingly cinematic quality to the stage production.
The weary Shakespearean vernacular hindered only a handful of scenes, ones often too long or convoluted to leave the audience anything meaningful to chew on. Others, however, evoked a viable, comedic turn to the pulpy tragedy unfolding on stage. While the occasional gun duels of the film became eccentric, at times hammy, mumblings of “where art thou’s” and “to be or not to be’s” between characters dressed in a mix of disheveled peasant garb and modern footwear, the casual conversations and pivotal monologues of the story rolled from the tongue like spirited satire. Even when the Bard’s linguistics were suddenly interjected by the occasional modern-day profanity, most notably from Jonathan Caldwell’s vile gangster Lord Marcellus Wallace, it played off as natural and applied a poignant and hilarious layer to the adapted narrative.
Overall, where “Bard Fiction” might have lacked in the gutsy cinematic bloodshed of Quentin Tarantino’s classic, it made up for with a gleeful homage to the tragedy and redemption at the heart of the story. Paging through the most iconic scenes of the 1994 film, all while injecting them into an Elizabethan London underworld, the production balanced sharp parody with a deep respect for both the filmmaker and the poet’s works. Whether you are a long-time fan of either Tarantino or Shakespeare or you’re simply in search of something completely outside the box, “Bard Fiction” may be the one for thee.
“Bard Fiction” plays at the Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square April 18-20 and April 25-27. It is brought to you by Shakespeare Charlotte and the Pulp Bard Wiki Project.