It’s easy to see why theater directors love making John Cassavetes films into stage dramas: What playwright today could mix up such a stiff cocktail of sexy waifs, listless intellectuals, and languorous conversations—and spike it with delicious old-timey turns of phrase too? New York has seen a handful of adaptations in the last five years, including Ivo van Hove’s sleek version of Opening Night (at BAM in 2008) and Doris Mirescu’s wild remake of Husbands (at the Public Theater’s 2010 Under the Radar festival).
Now, at Williamsburg’s tiny Collapsable Hole, the Hoi Polloi company tackles Shadows, Cassavetes’s 1959 indie feature about cantankerous Beat generation writers and musicians looking for love and spoiling for fights. Director Alec Duffy converts the garage-shaped performance space into a disheveled artists’ apartment, where a live jazz band plays and cocky young men swagger around in suits and skinny ties. Despite a conspicuous lack of smokers, the atmosphere successfully evokes the literary, racial, and sexual awakenings of the Eisenhower era—currently such a source of fascination on TV and in the fashion industry.
The vibe alone goes a long way—but not the whole distance—toward justifying this reenactment. Cassavetes liked to film his actors improvising a floating narrative, with his wandering camera alighting on brilliant details. Substituting for that cinema aesthetic onstage is tricky; it’s a blurry line between nuanced hypernaturalism and tentative, undeveloped scenework. Hoi Polloi’s most commanding performers—Dustin Fontaine, Jessica Jelliffe, Julian Rozzell Jr.— get by on charisma. But without the master filmmaker’s spontaneous lens enticing you to watch, it’s hard to stay engaged with other performers during the meandering scenes. Still, when the bass thumps and the company savors their freedom to play, a little chaos doesn’t feel like a bad thing at all.