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Storybook Characters: John Cassavetes’s Shadows at Jack

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Storybook Characters: John Cassavetes’s <em>Shadows</em> at Jack

“I’m not one of them storybook characters,” a charismatic young man assures his girl of the moment. As the plot develops, we watch the girl be seduced and then disillusioned by the man she thought was one-of-a-kind. Her hard lesson captures in microcosm the appeal of adapting John Cassavetes’s 1959 film Shadows to the stage, a project taken on two years ago by the ensemble company Hoi Polloi and now in revival at the company’s new theatrical home, Jack in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Cassavetes’s film, his first, is a barely plotted, hyper-naturalized slice of life in the “shadows” of New York City’s jazz scene. The film’s credits call it an “improvisation,” a typically coy claim by Cassavetes to make his audience feel they’ve witnessed an authentic experience rather than a carefully crafted representation. (The film was made without a script, and most of the characters were given the same names as their actors, but that doesn’t mean the scenes were unplanned.) Bringing the film to theatrical life—scene by scene, line by line, gesture by gesture—is to be wiser than the girl. It is to be charmed but never tricked by those who claim to be “real,” but are, in fact, characters from a human imagination.

The story Shadows tells is of three African-American siblings, two of whom are light enough to pass as white. One’s a third-rate jazz balladeer, one’s a virginal girl seeking adventure, and one’s a troubled dropout who goofs off with his buddies when he’s not fiddling his trombone. Shameful but barely enunciated racism, misogyny, and homophobia curdle their dreams and their trust in human connection, producing an angry undertone for which the plot offers neither resolution nor relief. Hoi Polloi’s adaptation conveys all this, but with an analytical distance. The satire feels more biting, and the exposé more reflective. Less the self-pronouncement of a lost generation, this Shadows stages a confrontation between today’s young urban artists and their parents’ world, one pocket of frustrated urban energy finding its mirror image in an older New York.

Thankfully, the result is never nostalgic. It’s exhilarating and deeply playful, a lively dance between art and reality. See the film before you see the play, so you’ll appreciate the cast’s commitment to its every nuance: Improvisation becomes choreography, making the actors more virtuosic than their filmic counterparts. But because director Alec Duffy refuses to hide his company’s necessary compromises (actors playing statues in a museum sequence, men and women cross-dressing to play minor characters, a giant spotlight that the actors manipulate to simulate “close-ups”), we watch as theater’s vitality defeats film’s documentary coldness. And we watch up close: Jack’s playing space, a large warehouse not unlike the Collapsable Giraffe in Williamsburg, places spectators in every corner of the scene, exposed like extras in a film shoot and able to sniff the actors’ sweat.

All the performers are captivating to watch, though in a couple of cases they bring a confident swagger to roles that are more fragile and internal in the film. Among these are Dustin Fontaine, who cuts a dashing figure and a Casanova smile as the lady’s paramour; Alexandra Miller, as the lady; and Julian Rozzell Jr., as her jazz-singer brother. Their confident energy adds to the play’s vitality, but slightly dulls its emotional impact. The boisterous and petite Samantha Debicki takes particular pleasure in a set of character roles, and the live band (the night I saw it: Emile Blondel on piano, Ezra Gale on bass, Steven Leffue on sax) is as hot and inventive as anything the 1950s could have coughed up. But it’s the collaborative achievement of the Hoi Polloi company that’s Shadows’s real spectacle. If you can get the smoke out of your eyes, you won’t be able to turn them away.

Shadows is running at Jack in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn through June 1st. For tickets, click here.