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Torn Space does justice to gritty Cassavetes cult film

Cosmo Vittelli is in trouble and its his own fault. The strip club owner has finally paid off a seven-year debt and to celebrate he takes three of the girls and goes to a casino. By the end of the night, he's $23,000 back in the hole and can't see his way out.

When filmmaker John Cassavetes told Cosmo's story more than 40 years ago in "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie," puzzled audiences turned away in droves. Since then the movie has gained respect for its unique perspective on life on the fringe of society in 1970s Los Angeles, and for its uncompromising take on one man's impossible choices.

That's what attracted Torn Space artistic director Dan Shanahan, who obtained permission to adapt Cassavetes' film to the stage.

It works. Moving the film's action from the sprawling city's gritty streets to the confines of the Adam Mickiewicz theater space puts the audience in the center of the action. We are so close that, as for Cosmo, there is no escape, no looking away.

Stan Klimecko wouldn't let us look away if we wanted to. Without the program notes to tell us otherwise, you would think Klimecko as running a real Crazy Horse West burlesque club when Shanahan found him. In shiny suit and satin shirt, he greets his audience and speaks with unvarnished pride about his shows, about his business, about his success. He clearly believes everything he says, even if we don't.

Supporting Cosmo in this world of self-deception is Chris Brandjes, nearly unrecognizable as Teddy, the club's MC who goes by the stage name "Mr. Sophistication." In a battered tux, wrinkled shirt and make-up reminiscent of Grandpa Munster on his worst day, he warbles tunes like "Anything Goes" while the club's showgirls writhe around him.

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Gabriella McKinley is Rachel, Cosmo's girlfriend and favorite dancer, and Carmen Swans plays her mother. Drag performers Fab Fabia, Matthew Rittler and Kalub Thompson are Rachel's glamorous co-workers. The pasties, garter belts and wigs may define them at first, but eventually we begin to see them as Cosmo does, as part of his family.

So we join in their despair when Cosmo gambles his way into deep trouble, and, like them, struggle to believe his assurances that everything will be fine. Hope takes another hit when two tough guys (Victor Morales and Gary Andrews Stieglitz) show up and demand Cosmo pay off his new debt by helping them set up a rival bookie for elimination, and when the plan takes a detour that will resonate with anyone who saw Brandjes onstage at Torn Space in "Streetcar."

For this show, the stage runs the length of the Mickiewicz performance space, with voices coming from the shadows and lots and lots of fog, emblematic of the obscure motives behind the most horrific decisions. Lighting races across reflective sheets surrounding the main space as the urgency of Cosmo's situation becomes more dire and the tonal soundtrack echoes both the ubiquitous traffic of LA and the pressure Cosmo feels to protect the small world he has created.

The innovative design of the show at times makes it hard to clearly hear all the dialogue, especially when actors are behind the scenes or wearing masks -- issues that might be worked out for future performances, and the narrative is sometimes hard to follow. At times, what's happening on stage is simply bizarre.

But yes, it works.

"Bookie" isn't for everyone. It is challenging and adult and so far off the traveled road that maps wouldn't even want to mention it. Visceral, unpredictable and desperately human, you might not want to know Cosmo but you won't forget him.

THEATER REVIEW

"The Killing of a Chinese Bookie"

3 stars (out of four)

Presented by Torn Space Theater in the Adam Mickiewicz Library & Dramatic Circle, 612 Fillmore Ave., 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday through March 10. Tickets are $30 (except for Feb. 28 fundraiser, which costs $100 and includes dinner and drinks) at tornspacetheater.com. Also, Torn Space will screen Cassavetes' director's cut of the film at 7 p.m. Feb. 18 at Hallwalls, 341 Delaware Ave.

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