Recent years have kind of inundated us with classic/pop culture mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. So when one of my colleagues sent me an email over the summer telling me that she was going to play Sarah Connor in a Shakespearean stage adaptation of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, I had two reactions:
“I have to see this!” and “Congratulations, Kahle!”
Full disclosure: they happened in that order.
Well, this weekend, Terminator the Second opened in Nashville, and it was glorious. Debuting at Nashville School of the Arts, the show was everything I had hoped for. The script is lifted directly from Shakespeare’s works and, when cobbled together, tells the nigh classic tale of John Connor and his T-800 protector–complete with adrenaline-fueled motorcycle/18-wheeler chase scene.
If that sounds odd to you, then you’re right. It was very odd. Terminator the Second is probably he most unique theater-going experience I’ve ever had, and let me be very clear: that’s not a bad thing. My wife and I left the theater with huge grins on our faces, discussed it on the way home, and the following day lamented how much we wanted to go see it again but couldn’t.
Come With Me If You Hold Your Life at Any Price
One of the main complaints you may hear (or have!) about Shakespeare is how inaccessible many of his plays are. As an English teacher, let me say that it’s not Shakespeare’s fault. He didn’t write his plays to be read; he wrote them to be performed and spoken.
If you’ve ever been to a high school production of, let’s say, Romeo and Juliet, then you know how hard it is to understand just what the heck Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech is even about when it’s delivered by a nervous seventeen year old. On the other hand, if you’ve ever seen a professional production of the same play, you’ll understand just how eloquent and moving that scene really can be.
My point is that Shakespeare is only inaccessible if the actor (or reader) makes him inaccessible. While Shakespeare did indeed write poetry, it is more accurate to say that Shakespeare wrote conversation.
What Terminator the Second did better than anything else was make the audience feel comfortable. We understood the dialogue, the plot, and were able to focus on the action instead of deciphering just what Sarah Connor might be raging about in her room at Pescadero State Hospital.
The whole cast was top-notch, delivering the lines as conversationally as they were intended. They spoke dialogue, not recite verses. The Terminator himself stole any scene he was in, and despite doing what could have been just another tired Arnold impersonation, gave the character a much-needed comedic side.
His timing on lines was perfect, making the gradual progression from machine to companion just as poignant on stage as it was on film. Like I said, the whole cast was that way. They were all comfortable with their roles, and it showed. The directors did a great job of keeping things natural. For us, it never felt overwrought, and when adapting Shakespeare into science fiction about the robot-incited nuclear holocaust, that takes a careful hand.
Because the project was funded through Kickstarter, budget concerns had to be at the forefront. This was never going to be a spectacle like Wicked. However, that doesn’t mean that special effects and theatrical magic had to dumb down the production. In fact, the most memorable parts of Terminator the Second were probably the most difficult to produce: the semi-truck chase scenes.
Terminator the Second not only had the iconic chase down the canal, but they were also able to have the T-1000 chase the SWAT van after Cyberdyne explodes.
Even though the 18-wheeler and the other vehicles were stationary, the scenes were full of action and looked fast-paced. Lights from above were used to show the speed of movement, and the bike was pushed into position by black-clad techies (who were far more invisible than any of the puppeteers in The Lion King). The SWAT van was full of people while it was being chased, and Sarah, John, and the T-800 were constantly moving and reacting as though they were moving at high-speed.
And when the big trucks crashed and caught on fire, the grill exploded in those wonderful light-and-cloth flames like you find in Halloween displays.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
While the night was overwhelmingly positive, there was one major pitfall the adaptation suffered: a sometimes ambiguous plot.
While I doubt any Terminator virgins would go in and see this show, if you aren’t already familiar with the plot of Terminator 2, there might be times you find yourself asking, “wait, what? huh?” as things happen in front of you.
For instance, there is little build-up to Sarah going go Miles Dyson’s house and trying to snipe him, nor is there much explanation–if any–given in regard to blowing up Cyberdyne Systems. And since I haven’t seen T2 in so long myself, I honestly can’t remember why Sarah and John took out the T-800’s brain-chip in the garage after their escape from Pescadero. And don’t even get me started on the lack of explanation about the steel foundry and the liquid nitrogen spill.
I think it comes from the nature of the project, though. I mean, the script is brilliant, but there is only so much an adapter can do to make Shakespeare explain blowing up a corporation to prevent them from reverse engineering a humanity-destroying artificial intelligence from the severed arm of a time-traveling robot.
‘Tis Still a Dream; or Else Such Stuff as Madman Tongue and Brain Not
I gotta tell you, as much as I loved this show, much of it was absolutely hilarious. And that’s the thing–I have no idea if it was meant to be.
There’s a certain level of hilarity and camp that comes with the juxtaposition of Shakespeare and robot violence. Terminator the Second was obviously very aware of itself as a project. The whole cast and crew knew precisely what they were getting into.
The thing is, going in, I wasn’t sure. I knew it was high-concept, and I knew that I would love it based on that alone (not to even mention a close colleague being Sarah Connor). I expected awesome, and awesome it was.
But I still have no idea if the awesome we loved was the awesome they intended. You see, the play was campy. From the T-800 dancing a caper (in lieu of John Connor commanding him to stand on one leg) to the T-1000 thrashing comically as it melts in a vat of molten steel, the show was funny.
My main fear is that the cast and crew of Terminator the Second went in with grand hopes this would be an action epic, and came out with a–forgive the pun–comedy of errors.
As much as I truly loved the production, I don’t want to be that guy. It’s like in Forgetting Sarah Marshall when Jason Segel’s character comes to the realization that the serious Dracula puppet musical he’s been working on for years isn’t actually a tragedy.
I find it hard to believe that with such a phenomenal idea and script, anyone is in the dark about how it turned out. But there’s still that nagging feeling, though.
Either way, whether it was intended or not, the show was hilarious and well worth seeing.
Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow
In the end, Terminator the Second accomplishes many things.
It proves that Kickstarter works, and that people want more experimental indie art. You hear that, Hollywood? New York Publishing?
It proves that Nashville (and Tennessee and the South in general) are good for more than just country music, the word y’all, and the Blue Collar Comedy Tour.
It proves that quality Shakespeare doesn’t have to be done in tights and corsets or in a park with a bunch of thees and thous.
And it proves that good acting, good ideas, and a bit of followthrough and support can make even the most ridiculous ideas into something special. I hate that this show is only open for a single weekend, but I’m very glad I was able to see it.
Here’s hoping that this time next year, Husky Jackal has another mash-up in the works. A Midsummer Night of the Living Dead, anyone?