What if Shakespeare had written Pulp Fiction? That’s the question written on the playbill of Pulp Shakespeare, one of many new plays being presented by the New York International Fringe Festival this summer. Written by Ben Tallen, Aaron Greer, Brian Watson-Jones, and Jordan Monsell, Pulp Shakespeare wittily reminds its audience that when it comes to unspeakable carnage, Shakespeare still has it all over Tarantino.
The play itself is a farcical reenactment of Pulp Fiction’s most memorable scenes: the opening (and closing) scene in the diner, Vincent Vega’s night out with Mia Wallace, the latter’s drug overdose and subsequent revival, Butch Coolidge and Marcellus Wallace’s captivity in a seedy pawnshop, and a few other scenes as well.
Perhaps one of the greatest pleasures (and surprises) of Pulp Shakespeare is that Tarantino’s outrageous dialogue and storyline, which became staples of American culture shortly after its 1994 release, are quite conducive to an Elizabethan context. There are, of course, a few glaring differences that such a stark change in setting would inevitably elicit. The crassness of Tarantino’s dialogue is never fully conveyed, although the word “wench” is certainly used a lot. But the bawdy, Elizabethan humor does come through, and it comes in ample measure, at that.
Even so, the two characters in the opening scene, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny (Pumpkin-Pie and Meadsweet in the play), seem far calmer, more calculating than their counterparts in the film. Played by Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer in the movie, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are no less passionate as crooks than they are as lovers. Their Bonnie-and-Clyde dynamic, their spur-of-the-moment instinct to rob the diner, gave us insight into the momentary thrill of performing a robbery, not to mention America’s perpetual fascination with crime and violence.
Pulp Shakespeare’s opening scene doesn’t convey that momentary thrill, perhaps because the play itself is, first and foremost, a spoof; and so it’s not really trying to add meaning to or make meaning out of its source material. The play does manage to convey the indiscriminate cruelty and violence that run rampant throughout Tarantino’s work. When such moments occur, when the stage lights go down on the sight of four men who have just been slaughtered, no one in the audience is laughing.
Perhaps one reason Pulp Shakespeare conveys Tarantino’s cruel sensibility so well is that Shakespeare’s sensibility is often just as cruel. We need only remind ourselves of King Lear (arguably Shakespeare’s greatest work), and the scene in which Cornwall gouges out Gloucester’s eyes. And then, of course, there’s Titus Andronicus, a play so tastelessly and unceasingly violent, that one might wish to rename it A Series of Unspeakable Events.
The point here is that the four writers of Pulp Shakespeare were on to something when they decided to adapt Tarantino’s work. And the play reminds us that many of the themes in Pulp Fiction are inherently Shakespearean. If we recall the scene in Pulp Fiction during which Vincent Vega and Julius Winfield debate Marcellus Wallace’s decision to throw a man out of a four-story window for allegedly rubbing his wife’s feet, the underlying theme of honor makes as much sense in context of Shakespeare’s epoch (late 16th century) as it does in context of Tarantino’s (late 20th century).
Pulp Shakespeare is no great shakes. It’s raucous and entertaining, all right, but it tries a little too hard to achieve its intended effect. Even so, Pulp Fiction groupies will surely find a lot to laugh at, and with a little bit of luck, they will also have some food for thought to go with their laughter, upon leaving the theater.
Photos by Brian Weiss, from top:
1. Justin Woodford as Gertrude, Aaron Lyons as Vincenzio de la Vega, Liza de Weerd as Jody, and Brian Weiss as Lancelot.
2. Christian Levatino as Butcher and Aaron Lyons as Vincenzio de la Vega.
3. Dan White as Julius and Aaron Lyons as Vincenzio de la Vega.\
Cherry Lane Theater
38 Commerce Street
5:30 p.m. Sunday, August 19, 2012
9:15 p.m. Thursday, August 23, 2012
2 p.m. Friday, August 24, 2012