You'd think John Ahlin would be tired of Sir John Falstaff by now. Ahlin, who's currently appearing in the Broadway thriller Voices in the Dark (he's the burly handyman who confuses Stephen King and Stephen Hawking), lists in his bio several past appearances as Falstaff, including a not-yet-released film of the two Henry IV plays.
Ahlin spent much of last winter filming "Hal," which was shot entirely in New Jersey. He had previously played the portly ne'er-do-well in Omaha and Orlando, and he welcomed the chance to do it for the relative intimacy of the camera. (By comparison, the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival seats up to 5,000.) "With Shakespeare, the action is all in the words," he says. "The subtext is in the text, and it's hard to get all those nuances all the way to the back row of an audience of 5,000." Although the 10 acts have been condensed into 90 minutes, the script is pure Shakespeare and was filmed entirely in period, with the help of scores of medieval re enactors.
Post-production of "Hal" has finally ended (complete with a score by period-music group Ars Musica Antiqua), and the next step will most likely be the festival circuit. But Ahlin is far from finished with Falstaff. "It's a part I want to come back to in five years and again in 10 years and just keep working on. He is one of the truly great Shakespearean characters. He isn't a coward or a jester or a debaucher or a drunk. He's a wit, and he has an interesting view of life. He's one of Shakespeare's most eloquent characters; unfortunately, he can never get anyone to believe him!"
A batch of the major film festivals crop up in September; this is a perfect time for American and British film studios to debut their Oscar hopefuls at one of the blue-chip festivals. Unfortunately, this year's two major Shakespeare titles -- Julie Taymor's "Titus" and Kenneth Branagh's "Love's Labour's Lost" -- made headlines by being snubbed by the Venice Film Festival committee. The committee did, however, select "Topsy-Turvy," the long-untitled Gilbert & Sullivan biopic by Mike Leigh ("Secrets and Lies"). It follows the pair as they struggle to mount "The Mikado." "Topsy Turvy," starring such familiar London stage names as Jim Broadbent and Louise Gold, is also the opening-night offering at this year's New York Film Festival. And United Artists Films bought the rights to Mike Figgis' "Miss Julie" before its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. UA plans to release the film, which stars Saffron Burrows and Peter Mullan, before the end of the year. *
Speaking of "Love's Labour's Lost," Nathan Lane (who plays the clown Costard) will have three other films in the can before he begins rehearsals for the new Stephen Sondheim musical, Wise Guys. Lane, whose calendar unexpectedly opened up after the cancellation of his TV show "Encore, Encore," is reunited with "Jeffrey" screenwriter Paul Rudnick in "Isn't She Great"; both it and "LLL" are due out in December. Lane also told Variety that he ultimately hopes to produce and star in a Jackie Gleason biography, directed by Neil LaBute and written by Jon Robin Baitz.
Cutting-Room Floor: Who would have guessed that within less than six months, Susan Sarandon would not only star in two films set backstage in the theatre world but play Italian countesses in both? "Illuminata" is already out, and "The Cradle Will Rock" has been bumped back from November to December. ... So much for rumors that David Mamet was about to begin writing the "Hannibal" screenplay for director Ridley Scott. Mamet will reportedly direct and write the comedy "State and Maine" in his home state of Vermont in September. The movie's premise (a small New England town's response to the arrival of a big Hollywood crew) sounds awfully similar to that of "Sweet Liberty," an Alan Alda vehicle from about 10 years ago. Mamet regulars William H. Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon will star, along with Alec Baldwin, Patti Lupone, Sarah Jessica Parker and Charles Durning. ... Dreamworks announced its 2000 production slate. Included are a remake of "The Man Who Came to Dinner" (hey, does Nathan Lane have any room left in his schedule?) and "Lookout," the second film by director Sam Mendes (Cabaret, The Blue Room). "American Beauty," Mendes' directorial debut, has been building a fair amount of buzz in Hollywood. ... One of my favorite theatre in-jokes in a while came in "Mystery Men." One superhero's press agent apologizes for a botched endorsement by pleading, "I'm a publicist, not a magician!" The actor is master prestidigitator Ricky Jay, whose stage show has appeared in New York several times over the last few years.
-- Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.