High Life

Shattered Globe Theatre

at Victory Gardens Theater

Pulp Fiction

Azusa Productions

at the Preston Bradley Center for the Arts

The people we find most fascinating on-screen and onstage are often those we would shun in real life: pimps, dealers, con artists, hit men, drug addicts. And Canadian playwright Lee MacDougall’s High Life begins as one of those nasty little plays that appeal to our moral voyeurism. But like David Mamet’s American Buffalo, David Rabe’s Hurlyburly, Maksim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, and Brecht and Weill’s Three Penny Opera, MacDougall’s play shows us our shadow side in order to integrate it, allowing us to peer into the dark of our psyches from a safe distance, sitting in our plush theater seats.

MacDougall spares no terrifying detail in drawing the portraits of four drug addicts trying to pull off a rather complicated bank heist. In one horrifying scene, ringleader Dick and his psychopathic second, Bug, shoot up, searching for unscarred veins after a lifetime of IV drug use. (Whoever did the makeup for Brian Pudil as Dick and Joe Forbrich as Bug has created repulsively realistic bruises and scars on their arms and legs.) In another scene, someone gets his throat slit, blood spurting everywhere.

If that’s all there were to High Life, the show would hardly be worth mentioning. In post-Tarantino America, spurting blood is as common as tap-dancing in a Gene Kelly movie. And lots of plays (and movies and TV shows) derive their dramatic power from revealing in stomach-turning detail just how nasty and brutish criminals are. The pigeonholing of such characters then allows writers and filmmakers to kill them off with impunity–or kill them off and glamorize them in the manner of Bonnie and Clyde.

What makes MacDougall’s play remarkable is that, after working hard in the first act to establish his characters’ criminality–their “otherness”–he then demystifies them, revealing how much they’re like the rest of us. The way they plan the heist makes it seem an ordinary human endeavor, a business deal or a military campaign. The second act, set in a car outside the bank the four plan to rob, depicts a series of petty fights, making the crooks seem a squabbling family on a long car trip. The result is at first hilarious–few things are as comic as seeing scary people behave like five-years-olds. But as the act progresses, their bickering becomes heartbreaking because it’s so small-minded and counterproductive. These nowhere men seem emblematic of our every silly, infantile foible, every flaw that interferes with our success and well-being.

MacDougall said in an interview that he first got the idea for High Life when he was living in a rooming house with four addicts: he was “surprised to learn that, although they had drug habits, they also had morals, and dreams, and humor.” A similar surprise is built into the play, whose final message is inescapable: these addicts are a lot like you and me, only more so.

Director Dado in this midwest premiere by Shattered Globe Theatre takes care to balance the two sides of MacDougall’s vision. When the script calls for playing up the men’s dark sides, she does so with finesse. Forbrich as Bug is permanently pissed off, and Andrew Rothenberg impersonates pathetic morphine addict Donnie so well you’d think he was a whining junkie in real life, his body all but destroyed by years of drug use. Tony Verville as pretty boy Billy convincingly degenerates from seeming normalcy to the same psychopathology as the others. Wringing laughs out of MacDougall’s material one minute, Dado disarms us the next with a scene that reveals in an instant the horror of daily life, the way people can recognize they’re stuck without being able to do a thing about it.

If we can believe loudmouthed self-promoter Quentin Tarantino, he was attempting a similar existential exercise when he and Roger Avary wrote the screenplay for Pulp Fiction. I don’t know why else they would have filled up so much of this bloody cops-and-robbers movie with dialogue about pop culture, the nature of the universe, and the possibility of divine intervention. But strip away the glitz and hype, Tarantino’s sly casting, Andrzej Sekula’s beautiful cinematography, and Sally Menke’s superb editing–as the folks at Azusa Productions have done in this stage version of the screeplay–and you’re left with a rather long-winded script that seems to have fallen in love with the sound of its own voice.

In some ways this failure is surprising. Tarantino’s screenplay for Reservoir Dogs, also written with Avary, worked well onstage when Azusa did it in 1998, in large part because the dialogue has a pointed Mamet-like quality. And the conversations between the two hit men at the center of Pulp Fiction are clearly modeled on the dialogue in Reservoir Dogs. But in this Azusa production it seems artless and even pointless at times. Similarly, the storytelling device that makes Pulp Fiction an interesting movie–the way its tales unspool out of chronological order–seems forced and manipulative onstage. The fact is, Reservoir Dogs is a simple, powerful story told straight through–which works in the theater–while Pulp Fiction is not.

Part of the problem too may be Maggie Speer’s production. Her cast seems underrehearsed much of the time, speaking their lines without confidence or, worse still, forgetting them entirely. In addition, the Preston Bradley Center for the Arts has a pronounced echo, and the “stage” (the place where the altar went when this room was used as a sanctuary) is so wide and high it dwarfs the bare-bones set.

But a greater problem is Tarantino and Avary’s script, which aspires to the same subtlety and depth as High Life but offers only gimmicky storytelling, clever pop-culture references, and lots and lots of blood and violence–none of it nearly as shocking onstage as it is on the big screen. At the same time, it keeps the characters at a distance from us, where we can marvel at their glamour and amorality and never think we might resemble them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Johnny Knight Photo, Liz Lauren.