Chris O’Neill likes to go headfirst down rabbit holes.
When the Shakespeare Carolina director discovered the Pulp Bard Wiki Project, a web page where people recast the plot of Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 hit film Pulp Fiction in William Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English, he knew he struck gold. The play resulting from this online collaboration, Bard Fiction, launches Shakespeare Carolina’s 22nd season when it goes up at Duke Energy Theatre at Spirit Square on April 18, in a production that promises honor, betrayal and foot-rub dialogue.
O’Neill is an outspoken proponent of popularizing Shakespeare for modern audiences.
“He is the greatest writer in the English language,” O’Neill says. “People need to hear his words spoken and need to see his work performed.” Naturally, a mash-up of the bard of Avon and the badass of Hollywood immediately made sense to him.
“I get grief for saying this, but Shakespeare was a successful entertainer,” O’Neill says. “He wrote comedies and tragedies [featuring] sex, violence and political intrigue. Now what does Tarantino write?”
Obviously, both writers display a penchant for bloody carnage, but the comparison goes deeper, O’Neill continues. Though separated by centuries, Shakespeare and Tarantino drew their plots from existing sources, and through a mastery of the English language, the two consummate showmen made those stories their own, O’Neill explains.
While Shakespeare borrowed from classic mythology, or twisted history to suit his needs, Tarantino drew from B-movie genres influenced by the hard-hitting stories of writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler — the original pulp fiction. The genius of each artist lies in what they did, and in Tarantino’s case continue to do, with that source material.
Reimagining the classical canon by taking an innovative or risky approach to revered texts has been the working philosophy for Shakespeare Carolina since its inception. O’Neill, now 54, was bitten by the bard when he was cast at age 27 in the South Carolina Repertory Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Hilton Head.
“Something during that show clicked for me and I wanted to know more,” O’Neill remembers. Learning more led doing more, and in 1997, O’Neill launched Shakespeare Carolina as a nonprofit organization and ensemble based in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Since then the company has presented 17 of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as works by Tennessee Williams, Bertolt Brecht and others.
Bard Fiction, which transposes the F-bomb-strewn argot of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction to Shakespeare’s blank verse and iambic pentameter, first appeared on O’Neill’s radar close to 10 years ago, when he discovered the Wiki site. He kept up with the page, read it and downloaded files from it with the intention of writing a scene or two, but he hadn’t gotten around to it when the site shut down.
In the meantime, a short production of Bard Fiction — written by Aaron Greer, Ben Tallen and Brian Watson-Jones with additional contributions from members of the Pulp Bard Wiki Project — debuted at the University of Minnesota Rarig Center Thrust as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival in 2009. The show was restaged in longer form in 2011.
By 2013, Shakespeare Carolina had just presented a three-person production of Frankenstein for the now-defunct Queen City Fringe Festival and were looking for a follow-up for 2014. O’Neill alighted on Bard Fiction, but delays and other shows intervened.
When O’Neill was planning Shakespeare Carolina’s 2019 season, he knew the time was right for the show. The fact that Bard Fiction is going up just as publicity is building for Tarantino’s latest film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is just a happy accident of timing, O’Neill says.
As producer of the production, O’Neill approached longtime friend and frequent collaborator James R. Cartee to direct. Cartee is the founder and director of Citizens of the Universe, an iconoclastic theatre troupe responsible for left-field productions like Trainspotting at The Milestone Club or Fight Club in a Plaza Midwood parking lot. COTU even put on another Tarantino adaptation, Reservoir Dogs, in 2010.
In 2016, Cartee pulled up stakes and left Charlotte for Austin, Texas. O’Neill, who has known Cartee for 25 years, says his friend and colleague recently returned to Greenville, South Carolina, and is commuting to Charlotte to work on the current production. O’Neill also cautions us not to consider COTU shut down.
“Citizens of the Universe is on hiatus but it never goes away,” he says laughing. “It’s like herpes, but in a good way.”
There was never any doubt in O’Neill’s mind that Cartee was the right choice to direct the Shakespeare-Tarantino mash up.
“If the world was a comic book, [Cartee] would be a super villain,” O’Neill enthuses. “He’s crazy smart and crazy talented. Forget about thinking outside the box. He has no box.”
True to form, Cartee found the idea of putting a twist on a known show alluring. He promises that the fourth wall will come down — along with other barriers — in the bawdy and brutal variation on the Bard. Audience participation will be encouraged, with many entrances and exits passing through the crowd. Cartee also says that a fight will spill out into the seats.
“I decided to place the show into the world of Commedia dell’arte,” Cartee says, referencing the popular, improvisation-based Italian comic theater style of the 16th-through-18th centuries. “It’s important with a property such as this, which is at once familiar and unfamiliar, to bring the audience into these characters’ world.”
He realizes that fans of the film have a vested interest in the property, and he wants to appeal to them as well as people who have never seen Pulp Fiction.
The idea of pulling people into the world of the play while pulling the rug out from under them is so important to Cartee that he has written a three-person pre-show scene that he hopes will entice audiences while upending their expectations.
So will the plot of Bard Fiction closely shadow its Hollywood inspiration? Yes and no, according to Cartee. The fact that the cast list includes unsavory characters like the Gimp suggests that the film’s disturbing pawn shop scene will appear onstage in some form. Audiences can take comfort that iconic characters like Vincent Vega, Jules Winnfield and Marsellus Wallace will be present in the Elizabethan guises of Vincenzio de la Vega, Julius Win-field and Lord Marsellus Wallace.
That said, some characters don’t make the transition from screen to stage. Captain Koons, the prisoner of war and watch bearer played by Christopher Walken in the film, has been replaced with a Hamlet-like ghost of Butch’s father, Cartee explains.
O’Neill says some characters have been combined and there will be gender reversals as well. To compensate for the lack of cell phones, even the brick-sized ones that appear in the 1994 film, the character of Sprint has been devised to take on the role of messenger between characters. In all, several intertwining plotlines involving multiple characters will be essayed by a cast of 13 actors.
It’s a stripped-down approach that dovetails with O’Neill’s philosophy of presenting theater with a diminished footprint.
“We’re trying to be as minimalist as we can,” O’Neill says. “If there are more than 15 people [in the cast], we’re doing something wrong.”
He feels that a story should tell itself onstage, unaided by bells and whistles like elaborate castle sets or ornate furniture.
“All an effective show needs is the right group of actors doing the right kind of work,” he continues.
Cartee is also enthusiastic about encouraging effective performances from his hardworking cast, partly because he too sees Shakespeare and Tarantino as a perfect fit.
“Both are bloody writers with an eye for characters,” Cartee says. The vivid Pulp Fiction characters and their experiences translate well over into Shakespeare country, he continues. “You get to see how each of the main characters progress through being avatars of life, death, redemption and change.”
Might we add to those themes reincarnation?