On the second floor of an ordinary strip center in San Antonio’s Whispering Oaks neighborhood, two enterprising lovers hold up a coffee shop at gunpoint, slick hit men discuss the differences between McDonald’s restaurants in the US and Amsterdam, and a beautiful black-bobbed woman screams through the aisles with a foam syringe the size of a femur undulating from her chest. It’s a live production of the cult classic film Pulp Fiction, and when the first surf-tastic notes of “Misirlou” peal across the seats, everyone in the audience knows that this ain’t no hum-drum night at the theater.
Since 2009, The Rose Theatre Company has been producing theater for people who dislike theater. After Pulp Fiction’s opening night, co-owners/founders/spouses/directors/actors/ticket and concessions executives Chris Manley and Jessie Rose sat down and explained what that means. “We want to do things that we want to see,” Rose said. Judging from the company’s history and the 2014 season, much of what Rose and Manley want to see are the sitcoms and movies that Gen X-ers and Gen Y-ers grew up watching on thick TVs and VHS tapes; stories that made them feel good and made them laugh. MASH, Gilligan’s Island, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure—Manley adapts them all for the stage and peppers them with original jokes and current pop culture references.
“We do the serious stuff, but we try not to be stuffy,” Manley said, citing a past production of Death of a Salesman and an upcoming production of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-the-Moon Marigolds. “We don’t take ourselves seriously, but we take the show very seriously.”
Indeed, watching a performance at The Rose can feel like hanging out at a party when your theater major buddies decide to take their movie quote-off to the next level by acting out an entire scene, or an entire movie, with true-to-character inflections, mannerisms, and costumes. In The Rose’s Pulp Fiction, actor Skudr Jones looks and sounds like Marsellus Wallace, but this Marsellus Wallace breaks out into “Gangnam Style” dance moves. Torence White and Dasha Voronyak make a convincing Butch and Fabienne, but their pleasures are impeded by an inflatable pussycat and a furry beaver hiding in the sheets, while the infamous Zed, played by Manley himself because no one else wanted the role, climaxes with an explosion of pressurized pink silly string. The point seems to be less about reality than entertainment—and anyway, the reality is a movie. In this and in all productions, Manley and Rose’s attitude seems to be, “Did people laugh? Did they have a good time? Mission accomplished.”
And when Manley sees people taking themselves too seriously—whether they’re the lovable, aphorism-spewing bunch in TV’s Full House (see Fool House in October) or a ludicrous, cocktail-swilling family from SA’s Alamo Heights (The 09ers should return for a sixth episode in 2015)—he writes them so audiences can laugh at them, too. Texas politicians will squirm in the spotlight in The Rose Theatre’s next production, Little Republican. Manley explained that the play, which he co-wrote with his seven-year-old son Sawyer, was inspired by two things: “The childish antics of Ted Cruz and the GOP during the government shutdown, and the fact that my son believes Jon Smith (the actor who played Vincent Vega) works for Obama as an NSA operative.”
“We do shake things up,” Rose said. “San Antonio has the opportunity to be a cool place for theater ... People are looking inside the box, and we don’t fit in there.” Manley agreed, explaining that they want theater to be another fun, affordable option for a Friday or Saturday night. “Twenty bucks gets you a ticket and a six-pack of beer (BYOB),” he said. “And then you get to tell people you went to the theater!”
It’s an offer that audiences enjoy, especially by the second act. The black box theater holds five rows of seats, and the actors can hear all of them. After a Lululemon-clad blonde finished her bottle of pinot gris, she, like a slurring voice of an off-stage god, “joined” the cast of Pulp Fiction. For those who missed the performance, just know that she has “a real problem with the N-word ... It’s really, really bad, y’all.” She must have been amazing in The Rose’s 2011 production of Black to the Future.
But hey, this kind of enthusiasm is part of what makes an evening with The Rose Theatre Company a refreshing alternative to the bar/restaurant scene. Manley and Rose regard their actors as family and their guests as friends, and in this extended family, no jokes are sacrificed on the altar of propriety.
Correction: April 30, 2014
This article has been updated from the original, which incorrectly stated that an actor appeared in blackface in The Rose’s 2011 production of Black to the Future.