STAGE TO SCREEN: At the New York Film Festival

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: At the New York Film Festival In the 2 1/2 years that I've written this column, I have never seen cinematic and theatrical treatments of the same piece on the same day. To the best of my knowledge, New York has yet to offer such a package, although I may have missed a tiny production of one of the Shakespeare plays (A Midsummer Night's Dream, say, or Love's Labour's Lost) running concurrently with the big-screen version.

In the 2 1/2 years that I've written this column, I have never seen cinematic and theatrical treatments of the same piece on the same day. To the best of my knowledge, New York has yet to offer such a package, although I may have missed a tiny production of one of the Shakespeare plays (A Midsummer Night's Dream, say, or Love's Labour's Lost) running concurrently with the big-screen version.

I thought I would have my chance in conjunction with the just-ending New York Film Festival. One of its first offerings, Manoel de Oliveira's "I'm Going Home," relies heavily on the inner world of its lead character, a highly respected Parisian stage actor. As played by Michel Piccoli ("Belle du Jour," Godard's "Contempt"), Gilbert Valance learns within the first 15 minutes of the film that his wife, daughter and son-in-law have all died in a car accident, leaving him to care for his grandson. de Oliveira devotes a surprising amount of screen time to productions of Gilbert's plays: He takes a crack at Prospero later in the film, but the first sequence is devoted entirely to a production of Ionesco's Exit the King, costarring Catherine Deneuve. (The authorities are actually waiting backstage to break the tragic news to Gilbert after his performance.)

As it happened, the Pearl Theatre had just opened a new production of Exit the King, so I decided to take in both renditions on the same day. Would the respective conventions of stage and screen make the same property more or less accessible? How do acting styles differ? Do the words take on more significance in the theatrical version? I even bought a translation of the play to read for purposes of comparison.

Unfortunately, the comparisons weren't anywhere near as abundant as I thought they'd be. I found "I'm Going Home" immeasurably more enjoyable than the Pearl production; although all three translations were quite similar — Donald Watson co-translated the printed version and had sole credit at the Pearl — the humor only really came out in the film. Piccoli portrayed the dying king as far more vibrant and lusty than Robert Hock did at the Pearl, and the resulting diminuendo made for a more satisfying contrast.

Interestingly, the play has a speech where the doomed king asks God to kill all his loved ones that he may be spared; this plea would take on far more resonance in the film, since we learn that his family has in fact died, but de Oliveira opted not to use it. After the screening, the director — still full of vigor at 92 — said he considers Ionesco's plays to be a "reaction against classical theatre" and listed Exit the King as a modernist response to The Tempest. "I'm Going Home" is "about a man who loses power and identity in many ways," he said, and both of those plays certainly reflect this loss. I opted not to go into too much detail about the comparisons between the two versions, in part because "I'm Going Home" really isn't about the Ionesco. But just as I began to despair about ever putting together my film-theater combo, I received good news. The much-hyped Australian thriller "Lantana," starring Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey, is apparently a direct adaptation of Speaking in Tongues, scheduled to open at the Roundabout's Gramercy Theatre on Oct. 26. "Lantana" isn't due until Dec. 21, but I hope to pair the two into a homemade double feature that will hopefully shed additional light on both projects.

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Film Forum can always be counted on to dig up some interesting material during its retrospectives, and the current Melina Mercouri tribute is no exception. The Greek actress-turned-activist-turned politician is perhaps best known here for "Never on Sunday" and "Topkapi," but Film Forum has unearthed at least one true rarity. Mercouri and her husband, the acclaimed director Jules Dassin, enlisted the help of several major talents in 1974 to film "The Rehearsal," a play-within-a-film protest against the military junta that had come into power in Greece in 1967. "She was a very, very outspoken advocate against that regime, and she and Jules Dassin were essentially exiled from Greece," says Film Forum publicist Harris Dew.

Using as their subject the 1973 massacre of students at Athens Polytechnic University, where at least dozens of students were killed (a firm death toll has never been disclosed), Mercouri and Dassin assembled a phenomenal cast to shed light on the regime. Arthur Miller, Laurence Olivier, Lillian Hellman, Olympia Dukakis and Maximilian Schell "all act as a chorus," says Dew, "and then the individuals come forth and give their accounts of the events."

The massacre is often credited with marking the beginning of the dictatorship's demise. The junta fell just days before the scheduled U.S. release of "The Rehearsal," and so the film has never been seen in U.S. theaters before. It will play at Film Forum on Oct. 17 and 18.

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Cutting-Room Floor: Take note of my new e-mail address below. From here on out, I can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com. … Doug Wright, whose delightfully creepy Unwrap Your Candy is currently playing at the Vineyard, has two major new film adaptations coming up. He recently finished writing "The Burial," based on a fascinating New Yorker article about feuding funeral home owners, for Ron Howard, and he's also adapting the Donald E. Westlake novel "Bad News" for Milos Forman. … In addition to the Arthur Miller novel "Focus," among the movies opening Oct. 19 in limited release are "Dancing at the Blue Iguana," starring Jennifer Tilly (The Women), and "Intimacy," the steamy drama starring Mark Rylance of London's Globe Theatre.

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My Favorite Thought: Cindy took issue with the prevalent use of "normal" and "censorship," two words that have come up a lot since Sept. 11:

" 'Normal' is a fluid concept. What is normal now was not normal 20 years ago. Events alter and change 'normal,' and artists, as well as the public, are always adjusting to new concepts of normalcy. The difference here is that one catastrophic event has instantly propelled us into a different reality, instead of the gradual change we are accustomed to.

"As far as 'censorship' goes, I am of the opinion that artists use this word far too loosely. It is only censorship when the government or other authority prevents freedom of speech. If an artist's ideas do not resonate with the public or the sponsors, and they choose not to support the art, that's not censorship — that's merely economic reality."

Your Thoughts: The floor is yours. Talk about whatever you want to talk about. Just don't forget to use the new address.

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.