We all know Reservoir Dogs, the 1992 profanity-laden blood-and-guts bath that was Quentin Tarantino's first big splash in the Hollywood pool. But while most people see the small-time thugs, gasoline immolation of cops and a fustercluck of shooting as a fitting example of the over-the-top, testosterone-fueled machismo of the early 1990s, Hero Carlisle sees something different.
"It's really a beatiful story of love and betrayal," says Carlisle, who has retooled the film in ambitious fashion with his new play, Dogs of War, which opens this weekend at STAGEStheatre in Fullerton. "Tim Roth and Harvey Keitel's characters are star-crossed lovers."
Say what? Don't write off this UCLA graduate student in English so quickly. Some with a Freudian bent maintain that the hyper-violent characters in Reservoir Dogs overcompensate for their vulnerability and emotional instability through racism, misogyny and selfishness. The film, says one reviewer, "evokes man's inescapable anima and the tragedy that results when two men form a bond that society can't accept."
Okay, so we get there may be something going on beneath the surface. But how and, perhaps most important, why uproot the story into Renaissance Italy and turn the language into Elizabethan English, basically giving it a heavy gloss of Shakespeare?
"There is beauty and substance in anything," Carlisle says. "You can even find it in a movie that so many people think of as just gruesome. You just have to shake off the 1990s film conventions, the profanity, the absurd violence, and by setting it in a different era, I thought I could do that. Because, really, all stories are the same."
Carlisle, who is dyslexic and focuses more on analyzing literature in his grad work than actually reading for reading's sake, also thought that tweaking the film would help him explore something Shakespeare never did. "I thought it'd be interesting to use [the film] as a way to explore villains [using Shakespearian verse]," he says. "He has them, but they're rarely protagonists, and they're usually high characters, like kings or generals, or they're more like comic relief. But you never see a story where the protagonist is a low-born commoner who is also a criminal. Those standard criminals are never depicted in dramatic fashion, and Shakespeare never explored the tragedy of the criminal lifestyle."
But it wasn't enough to up the language ante or set Reservoir Dogs in an imagined past. Carlisle also wanted to get to the emotional heart of the tale, a tale that many people who remember the movie as a profanity-laced shootout might not realize is there. One way of accomplishing that, he says, is through focusing on the violence of the film through more of a Shakespearean lens than a Tarantino filter.
"The way Tarantino uses violence—and he has said this himself many times—it's more of a spectacle," he says. "It's gratuitous, so it's almost comical. He is deflating the seriousness of the violence by taking it to an absurd point." As for Shakespeare? "While he has some really gruesome scenes, like a protagonist stabbing a pregnant woman or making meat pies [out of humans], they are sparse and sparing," Carlisle says. "He adds a lot of emotional weight to the violence, which [supplies] a counterweight to it. That's what makes those violent scenes really stand out, and that's what I've tried to do."
For instance, when his play reaches its foregone climax, with the men fighting, "it's not just a fight between men," he says. "It's a fight between brothers. In the film, they are all screaming at one another, and it almost seems petty. But here, they are screaming about how much they love one another. It's far different from the film. But what is more dangerous than people [fighting one another] who love one another?"
Ultimately, Carlisle hopes people will come away from his play considering their own lines between loyalty and betrayal, as well as reconsidering Shakespeare. "So many people say they don't understand Shakespearean literature because they don't understand [the language]," says Carlisle, who rewrote The Breakfast Club in a similar style last year for STAGES. "But Shakespeare is not some mystical thing. It's something you can really play with and adapt."
Dogs of War at STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth, Fullerton, (714) 525-7070; www.stagesoc.org. Aug. 5-14: Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Aug. 20-Sept. 11: Sat.-Sun., 5 p.m. $18-$20.