STAGE TO SCREEN: Checking Out Chekhov

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: Checking Out Chekhov Quick: Name the lead characters in Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard. The Ranevskaya siblings, of course, Lyubov and Gaev, and the capitalist Lopakhin. You could add Lyubov’s daughters, Anya and Varya. The ancient butler Feers would probably qualify, too.

Quick: Name the lead characters in Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard. The Ranevskaya siblings, of course, Lyubov and Gaev, and the capitalist Lopakhin. You could add Lyubov’s daughters, Anya and Varya. The ancient butler Feers would probably qualify, too.

According to Michael Cacoyannis, you’re forgetting a major character.

"On the stage, one of the protagonists is necessarily absent," says the 80-year-old director best known for his Oscar-winning "Zorba the Greek" back in 1964. "And that character is nature."

Cacoyannis’s new "Cherry Orchard" film, starring Charlotte Rampling and Alan Bates, remedies this dilemma by setting much of the action outdoors—in the lush, gorgeous orchard where Lyubov’s son once drowned, where the servants now rendezvous and where the axes finally bring the Ranevskaya family’s delusions to a crashing halt. "The dialogue is all Chekhov," he says, "but the settings of the scenes are new."

While he has also set two brief scenes in separate locations—the action begins in Paris, where Lyubov has been living, and includes the auction where Lopakhin purchases the land—Caoyannis is a zealot when it comes to being faithful to the material. "Directors today impose their own personalities on the work, which I think is wrong," he says. "If you’re going to do Shakespeare, do Shakespeare, for God’s sake." (Have Cacoyannis and Baz Luhrmann met?) Cacoyannis had hoped to film the play with Bates for years and had originally planned to mount the play on Broadway. "But without the right cast," he says, "you don’t touch these plays. So I dropped it at the last minute."

Once he was ready to film, he searched around the world before discovering a dilapidated estate in Bulgaria. He then began casting by looking up his longtime friend and “Zorba” costar: "Alan Bates was one of the first names on my list and had been for a long time." Rampling, however, stepped in only after another actress was forced to step out at the last minute. Cacoyannis calls her "a very lucky replacement. ... She carries a real mystery that is very rare." The most intriguing piece of casting, sadly, involved one of the smaller parts. Alec Guinness was originally to play Feers, Cacoyannis says, but "he just couldn’t take the risk of traveling to Bulgaria." Michael Gough eventually stepped into the role.

His "Cherry Orchard" may include such diversions as a dancing dog and various comic bits with the amorous servants, but Cacoyannis takes issue with the classification of "comedy" that Chekhov famously used with his plays. "When he says ‘comedies,’ he means the people in them are not tragic," says the director, who has previously brought such Greek tragedies as “Electra” and “Iphigenia” to the big screen. "But obviously, the marks of tragedy are there.

"It’s not just the destruction of nature," he says of the play’s tragic elements. "It’s the ruthless progress of science. And this is still true today, with pollution spreading its filthy wings around the world."

The film has opened country by country over the last two years; so far, it has been most successful in Russia and Greece. ("The Russian soul and the Greek soul are maybe not so far apart," Cacoyannis says.) Since filming "The Cherry Orchard," he has staged Medea in Spain and translated his fourth Shakespeare play—Othello--into Greek. "It’s not fun," Cacoyannis says of translating. "It’s torturous, but it’s very rewarding."

Cacoyannis used proceeds from the film premiere to fund the renovation of the Russian cottage where Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard. Cacoyannis visited the cottage afterward--and before he left, he planted an orchard tree sapling on the premises. The destruction of nature may be "ruthless," as he puts it, but it’s not always irreversible.

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Maybe this is a reach, but I suspect the commercial success of “Moulin Rouge” just kicked the door open for Susan Stroman. After John Weidman watches his Pacific Overtures book performed (albeit in Japanese) at the Lincoln Center and Kennedy Center festivals this summer, he’ll join Stroman in adapting their “Contact” for USA Films. Variety says the film, scheduled to film by year’s end, will concentrate on the final of the three pieces (the one with the Girl in the Yellow Dress) but include all three sequences.

The fact that USA Films is involved probably means a smaller budget, which is good, in my opinion: The “Evita,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Rent” and “Chorus Line” movies all took (or are taking) so long to get off the ground because producers were scared of the big price tags. As so many directors are learning, small means relatively autonomous. I have no idea whether “Contact” can work on the big screen, but if anybody can do it, it’s Stroman. And without a massive budget to worry about, the studios will presumably give her room to figure it out.

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As last Sunday’s New York Times reminded us, the current Broadway production of Fortune’s Fool will be filmed after the run ends, with the same cast (including Alan Bates and Frank Langella) and director (Arthur Penn). Is it me, or is this bad marketing on the producers’ part? With so many big-ticket plays opening (two Arthur Millers, one Ovid, not to mention The Graduate and Topdog/Underdog), mightn’t it make sense to not remind potential audiences that the movie version will be out soon enough?

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Cutting-Room Floor: I’ve written in the past about InDigEnt Films, the digital film start-up that banked 10 low-budget films, including “Tape.” Well, after two InDigEnt-affiliated offerings scored at Sundance, another batch of digital films are on the way—including “Pieces of April,” directed and written by Peter Hedges (Baby Anger). ... Two coming-of-age films that opened March 1 (“Esther Kahn” and the Brendan Behan biopic “Borstal Boy”) use revelatory performances of 1890s plays as a climax— Hedda Gabler and The Importance of Being Earnest, respectively. ... Speaking of “Esther Kahn,” director Arnaud Desplechin is adapting Edward Bond’s In the Company of Men. I don’t know anything about the play, except that it has nothing to do with the Neil LaBute play. Of course, coming from Bond, it will probably be about as sunny. ... If you’re still interested in checking out Mos Def before Topdog/Underdog, he has a small part in “Showtime” (March 15). Philip Bosco and Josh Stamberg (Tape) appear in “The Time Machine” (March 8). And Tape producer Ilana Levine appears with David Aaron Baker, Tovah Feldshuh and Jackie Hoffman in “Kissing Jessica Stein,” opening in limited markets on March 15.

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My Favorite Thought: Despite a full-court advertising press on the New York Times Web site, “Scotland, PA” hasn’t attracted much of an audience yet. But here’s a filmgoer named Sean who’s glad he went:

“I saw ‘Scotland, PA’ last evening and loved it.  It was fresh, funny, and clever.  I only had one complaint: I wish Morrisette hadn't used all the names from the play.  It pulled me out of the movie every time. This is a movie that deserves to stand on its own. I kept comparing it to the play, which was unfortunate.  I loved the self-help tape reference to the ‘Tomorrow’ soliloquy, though. What a great way to reference the play without fixating the audience on it.”

Your Thoughts: There are about 30 equally clever bits in “Scotland,” along with a few things that don’t quite work in translation. On to “The Cherry Orchard”: Is there something inherently unfilmable about Chekhov, or does he get a bad rap? Why are there about 10 Shakespeare films for every Chekhov film?

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.