STAGE TO SCREEN: Scottish Rites and Oscar Snubs

STAGE TO SCREEN: Scottish Rites and Oscar Snubs Way back when he was in high school in South Windsor, CT, reading Shakespeare and working at a Dairy Queen, Billy Morrisette thought Macbeth and fast food would make a good match. But it wasn’t until 20 years later that he did anything about it.

Way back when he was in high school in South Windsor, CT, reading Shakespeare and working at a Dairy Queen, Billy Morrisette thought Macbeth and fast food would make a good match. But it wasn’t until 20 years later that he did anything about it.

“I was a bitter, angry actor driving around L.A. with nothing better to do,” says Morrisette, 39, who has spent the last decade or so acting in everything from “Penn and Teller Get Killed” to TV’s “Mad About You.” While driving, he happened to hear two different talk-radio personalities discuss the Shakespeare tragedy within a three-day period. The idea returned. “The main thing is that I loved the idea of killing and violence in a fast-food restaurant,” he says. “So I bought a computer.”

The result, a darkly humorous Macbeth retelling called “Scotland, PA.,” is currently playing in four cities and will expand over the next several weeks. It stars Maura Tierney of “ER” (who is also Morrisette’s wife), along with James LeGros and Christopher Walken.

Morrisette says he immersed himself in the play before starting work on his script. “I immediately knew who the characters were going to be,” he says. “I knew that Malcolm would be in a band and that Duncan would be gay. I knew that Macduff would be a detective. I didn’t have a clue what they were going to do or say, but I knew they’d be there.”

In “Scotland, PA.,” the witches have become pot-smoking hipsters (two of them male). Macduff is a vegetarian police lieutenant. Malcolm’s a pot-smoking guitarist, and Donald likes to sing show tunes with his high school drama club. Lady Macbeth’s “damn spot” manifests itself as a grisly consequence of Duncan’s death by deep fryer. “I wanted to make it a fun, black comedy first and then have a side of Shakespeare,” Morrisette says of the parallels. So even though many of the connections are uncanny — wait until you see how Birnam Wood comes to “Mac” McBeth — Morrisette was careful not to overdo it. In fact, he filmed and then removed several more scenes with the witches giving Mac a series of prohecies: “It was too close to Shakespeare.”

One of his most extensive changes involved fleshing out the role of Lady Macbeth (Pat McBeth in the film). “I started out writing it for Maura. I always thought it was Lady Macbeth’s story, but when I reread the play, I saw that it really isn’t. She shows up, she makes her point and, before you know it, she’s dead.” Besides, he says, bolstering the leading lady’s part is always a good idea when you’re married to her: “My job, first and foremost, was to give Maura more lines.”

Morrisette quickly decided to set the film in the 1970s. “I thought about the 1940s at first, because that was really the beginning of the fast-food empires,” he says, “but I knew I’d never get the money for that. And I’m also sick of all those hats.” Instead, he went back to his own memories of the 1970s, when the economy was bad and drive-throughs were all the rage. In fact, Banquo’s ghost shows up to disrupt the grand opening of the McBeth’s drive-through in “Scotland.”

With the notable exception of Walken, the cast is largely made of indie-caliber actors, including LeGros, Kevin Corrigan (as Banko) and Andy Dick. Morrisette admits that things didn’t go well at the beginning of the shoot, and Lot 47 had reportedly considered replacing him, but he quickly learned the ropes. “I never did this before,” he says, “and I was a wreck for the first week. Luckily for me, Walken didn’t come in until Day 12. He was large and weird and great, and he had a lot of questions about his character. Later, he told me he was very happy about playing a nice guy.”

As for Morrisette, whose wife is currently logging 16-hour days on “ER,” his days in front of the camera are over. “I’m finished for life. It was a good time, but I couldn’t be happier. This is so much nicer.” Tierney hopes to star in Morrisette’s newest screenplay, “My Dead Boyfriend”; this one’s also a period piece, set in the early 1990s in Seattle. And he’s got two more scripts in the works, including a piece tentatively titled “Penis, Indiana.”

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So the Oscar nominations turned out to be even more of a bust than I feared. Nothing for "Pinero." Nothing for "Lantana." And nothing for "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," not even the technical nods that I thought were real possibilities. Dance of Death costars Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren were both nominated, but the show has closed and both are Oscar long shots. The only real synergy can be found in the Best Actress race, where Judi Dench will be heard (but not seen) as the Giant in Into the Woods, which is scheduled to end its pre-Broadway run on March 24, the night of the Oscars.

Other than that, I suppose I should be excited about the eight nominations for "Moulin Rouge," which will presumably give movie musicals some much-needed legitimacy in the studios’ eyes. But the "Moulin" score, with its frenetic Mixmaster of Elton John and Madonna tunes, isn’t exactly what I look for in a typical movie musical. "Chicago" (starring surprise Oscar nominee Renee Zellweger) just earned itself a few extra millions in marketing dollars, but the pressure will still be on to produce.

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Back to "Scotland, PA." After trying (and failing) to snag a rush ticket to Homebody/Kabul, I happened to walk past the Union Square multiplex where "Scotland" is playing. Two young ladies were handing out flyers inviting people to head over to a faux McBeth’s on East 17th Street for free beer and popcorn. With the Kushner play falling through, I suddenly had several hours to kill, so I walked over.

What I found had very little to do with the movie. A video console outside was playing a trailer for a totally different movie currently in release by the same distributor. Cans of beer were up for grabs, as promised, along with a clever questionaire about one’s fast-food preferences. (As with the movie, Tab soda got lots of attention.) I couldn’t make heads or tails of the entertainment, though: Some guy was singing along to a prerecorded backup tape. He was also strumming a guitar, but the sound wasn’t really part of the rest of the music. It was almost like a karaoke coffehouse. The music wasn’t particularly ’70s or Shakespearean—or Scottish, for that matter. At one point in “Macbeth,” the title character actually refers to “a false creation,/Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain.” (Come to think of it, it was a bit warm in there.) According to a printed schedule, “Scotland” costar Timothy “Speed” Levitch — he plays one of the hipster witches —would sporadically lead something called the Shakespeare Delivery Troupe, but it was just the guy with the guitar when I was there. Everybody there seemed to know one another, so I scooted out of there after about 10 minutes. Nice idea, though.

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Speaking of Shakespeare, the latest challenge to the school of thought known as "Stratfordianism" is now playing at Film Forum. As several impressive articles in last week’s Sunday New York Times point out, many people think William Shakespeare was too uneducated to have written what we consider the works of William Shakespeare. The next question is always: Then who did write them? Some people like the idea of several people, including old Will, writing the plays by committee. Some like Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who presumably required a cover because writing plays was considered beneath nobility at the time. (That’s who the Times articles focused on.) "Much Ado About Something," meanwhile, focuses on playwright/poet/homosexual/atheist/spy Christopher Marlowe. The main catch in this theory is that Marlowe was stabbed to death in a tavern brawl at the age of 29, well before most of the Shakespeare plays appeared. The Marlowe theorists say he didn’t really die but hid away and wrote the Shakespeare canon. Anyway, it sounds pretty interesting, and Mark Rylance (whose Globe production of Whoever’s Cymbeline reaches BAM on March 5) is featured prominently. It’s scheduled to run through Feb. 26, but Film Forum often extends runs if the demand is sufficient.

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Like a lot of people, I had my doubts about rapper Mos Def taking over for Don Cheadle in the Broadway transfer of Topdog/Underdog, currently in rehearsals. But after seeing "Monster’s Ball," in which he has a smallish role, I feel a lot better about it. Def is quite good. *

My Favorite Thought: Don is just one of many people excited to hear of Lincoln Center’s plans to air several of the American Film Theater productions this summer:
“I read your column faithfully, but I've never been as charged as I am after today's item about the Lincoln Center Festival and American Film Theater. I missed the American Film Theater movies mostly out of stupidity, but partly because I was in my early 20s, which should be explanation enough. However, I do regret not seeing many of their offerings, especially "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris." But there is one other I missed but have since gotten on video, "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" with Alan Bates. "Joe Egg" is my favorite play, and I love what they did with it on film.
“If Lincoln Center is going to present these films, maybe there's a chance we'll be able to get them on DVD - from my lips to God's ears! Thanks for including this piece in your column. I'm jazzed.”

Your Thoughts: Me too, Don. And if you like Alan Bates, tune in to my next column. Has anyone else seen “Scotland, PA.” or “Much Ado About Something”? Or stumbled onto that crazy McBeth’s? What did you think? And any thoughts about the Oscar snubs? Who most deserved to sneak in, and whose place should he/she have taken?

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