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Solid as a ‘Brick’: Z.F. Mims’ adaptation of Rian Johnson’s debut film succeeds

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Up All Night Theater Co. and Browncoat Pub and Theatre opens 2015 with an adaptation of Rian Johnson’s 2005 indie-film “Brick.” Z.F. Mims directed the show and adapted the script from Johnson’s film and a novella the filmmaker wrote prior to shooting the movie.

You can pin-point my age perfectly because when I heard “Brick,” my mind went immediately to Ben Folds Five—not the film that I had yet to see. After much discussion, I decided to go see the stage show first, to see if it could stand on its own merits. The following evening I watched the film for reference and comparison sake. Though many people in the audience are familiar with the film, hopefully, the stage show will reach out to a larger group. The work needs to be a contained, stand-alone piece. As one local director puts it: “The book is the book, the movie is the movie, the comic is the comic—they aren’t supposed to be the same thing.”

Written like a classic film noir and set up with fast-paced dialogue, the story is set in a suburban high school in the early aughts: Some people have cell phones, but pay phones can still be found on street corners. Brendan Frye (Josh Bailey) is our classic hard-boiled detective character: haunted, isolated and aware that he can’t trust anyone—let alone the women he wants to protect. His ex-girlfriend, Emily Kostich (Jaimie Harwood), calls him in hysterics and is found dead two days later. There was probably some important exposition in Harwood’s lines, but her hysteria made it a little hard to understand some of what she said.

Then begins the introduction of stock characters from the hard-boiled detective world of noir films: The Brain (Andrew Liguori), the smart-but-less-macho sidekick; Kara (Olivia Arokiasamy), the ex-girlfriend; Laura Dannon (Kristi Ray), the femme fatale; The Pin (Atwood Boyd), the bad guy; and Tugger (Hal Cosec), the bad guy’s muscle. This cast of characters alone should communicate that we are clearly in a Sam Spade land set in a modern suburban high school. It’s not a parody of the genre; it literally transports it to another time and place. Johnson goes to great lengths to have the cast continue to use the slang and patois of the genre.

There were a couple of choices in front of Mims for producing this piece: He could try to do a direct visual rendering of the film, a high-concept-design adaptation (like making the set a cartoon version of the film), or he could go for a minimalist approach and accentuate the story to pull the audience along. He chooses the third and turns the protagonist into a narrator as much as a character. It’s an interesting choice that strongly mirrors the writing voices of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. From a playwriting standpoint, he basically steals from the best: It’s pretty reminiscent of Shakespeare asking the audience to imagine Agincourt.

Brendan tells us that he is walking up to the drama building and what it looks like.  The audience knows he is sneaking around the side of the house as soon as Laura is out of the room because he tells us as he acts it out. It’s sort of an adult version of story theatre. 

The stage is basically bare and black except for some black cubes that move and shape into vague furniture. It adds to the otherworldly feeling of being thrust into something Brendan hadn’t asked for and isn’t entirely certain how to navigate. Bailey shoulders the brunt of the burden as narrator, set decorator and protagonist. Add to it a stylized, rapid-fire dialogue that requires an ample partner to play back with the same repartee, and Bailey has quite the task.

Hal Cosec as Tugger actually hits the stride with the dialogue back and forth the best, which comes as a bit of a surprise since he doesn’t really talk much until act two. Kristi Ray as Laura Dannon (rich-girl femme fatale) draws in Bailey and the audience. She manages to make much of the dialogue seem natural. For most of the cast, the dialogue is a stumbling block and, like learning to perform Shakespeare in a natural and convincing way, this is one of the major hurdles. 

Arianna Tysinger’s fight choreography is remarkably good, especially for such an intimate space where there is not much opportunity to hide details form the audience. This is noir thriller, so there’s a lot of blood and bad boys roughing up each other. The hyper-masculinity that is played so well in that genre actually translates really well to the high-school setting, given that is part of the constant power-play of daily life.

Mims is on to something here with his adaptation of “Brick”: It’s smart, funny, compelling, and truly honors the original work. As someone who recently wrestled their way through a similar experience of adapting a film to the stage, I am impressed with what he has done. As well, I’m sympathetic to the desire to please and be respectful of the original creator while still making something different and worthwhile.

This is pretty large material, and when Mims remounts this production, I hope he will have attracted an experienced director to collaborate with. The show is good, but there are pieces that need the expertise that only come from experience: working on the patois, some blocking changes and a few quiet moments for more oomph. A lot of the show reminds me of the Big Dawg Productions and Riverside shows from the early ‘90s. “Brick” contains the similar feel of excited young people trying something new and stretching, maybe with a net, maybe without.

Fans of the film will find many things they like about the show. Some of the stage performances are superior to the film. Cosec as Tugger, especially, is a stronger performance. However, the stage show puts much more emphasis on the story than the visual homage and milieu created by Johnson. So, does the stage show stand on its own? Yes. It captivates and audiences can follow it with no trouble. They can enjoy it tremendously without having seen the film first. The story is strong, the performers are committed, and by the end, not only will spectators be rooting for Brendan but for the whole cast, too. It’s an interesting and creative evening out at the theatre.



Browncoat Pub & Theatre
111 Grace St.
Thurs.-Sun., Jan. 15-25, 8 p.m.; Sun. matinee: 5 p.m.
Tickets: $10-$15
(910) 341-0001

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