The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
Based on the Film by John Cassavetes | Original Stage Adaptation by Torn Space Theater
February 15 -March 18, 2019
At the Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle
612 Fillmore Avenue, Buffalo NY 14212
Last February I re-watched several John Cassavetes films looking for one that might translate to the stage. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie stood out as a piece that could make sense told through staged images. I contacted Al Rubin, the film’s producer, cinematographer and actor (he plays the role of the small time bookie who Cosmo pays off to be free of an old debt). After reviewing our work Mr. Rubin granted us permission to adapt the film script to the stage, he was to send over the script and I would begin. Except he could not find the script. He thought it was in a safe box but it was not there. There was no longer a script, he had only the continuity dialogue; pages of dialogue with no scene delineation, or stage or shot selections. Here began the challenge of adapting a film to the stage, paring down scores of actors to nine, transporting several scenes benefitting from jump cuts, cross fades and edits to a singular stage design, and making sense of a dialogue lacking scene and stage directions.
We decided to amplify the showbiz quality of the work; showcase the construction and deconstruction of stage images, let the performers manipulate and adjust the set, deliver dialogue live and through a series of microphones, and peel back the illusion of cinema to show the reality of characters trying to choose a personality. If cinema can show fantasy, stage can show the labor needed to construct that fantasy.
Cosmo Vitelli owns a club called The Crazy Horse West located on the Sunset Strip in LA. He is able to pay off a seven year debt and to celebrate he takes a few of his dancers out drinking and gambling. On that night he gets into a 23k debt ($97,500 today) to some mobsters. They let Cosmo know the debt will go away if he takes out a small time bookie. Cosmo steps into a fatalistic noir, where one mistake leads to the next, and his fate is a forgone conclusion.
In this noir, truth is a hidden killer. Characters construct illusions and personas, commit murder and set-ups; a performance to exist and to stay alive. Truth is a source of horror revealing itself to the characters one by one. The characters are in desperate need for improvisation, selecting personalities, constructing their reality, tearing it down, rebuilding it. They need to be loved. Theirs is a deep and open wound that will not be healed; not by sex, or killing, or talk, or going to the movies, or taking risk or drinking, or performing. “I can’t give you anything but love…baby” is the re-occurring Greek Chorus for this tragedy.
The Crazy Horse West is an echo chamber, a magnifier for the production’s themes; illusion, synthetic construction, fantasy and façade, attempt to replace reality. Illusions of sex, of tenderness, of stardom, of control, of beauty and of being loved, tries to take hold but always slips away.
If the dancers are avatars of this illusion, and Mr. Sophistication, the club’s MC, is a counterpoint to Cosmo’s desire to construct beauty, then the gangsters are agents of another order. They are able to shift and manipulate the rules and the intellectual, physical, and symbolic space, in an attempt to tear down the creators.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is the one genre piece that John Cassavetes made, but for a fiercely independent voice in American Cinema the plot and themes reject many aspects of a traditional gangster film. Like in all of Cassavetes’ work, the characters are alone and searching, trying to find someone who understands them and will take them in. When they do find that person, inevitable truths come out, and once again, they are outside, alone.
– Dan Shanahan, Director