It certainly isn't unusual to see independent filmmakers adapt plays for the screen, but these tend to be character- and dialogue-driven modern works. The classics are generally left for the major studios, in part because of the larger budgets for sets and costumes and in part because the specialized audiences tend to gravitate toward "edgier" fare.
A curious hybrid appears to be in the works, though: a new version of Euripides' The Bacchae, based on a Los Angeles production, reconceptualized with big-name British actors and as edgy as any Tarantino knock-off. It promises nudity, gore and rock music galore, plus a cast that includes Brian Blessed and (hopefully) Alan Bates.
Bradford Mays, a longtime theatre veteran who had begun to burn out after several years as a Hollywood script doctor, adapted and directed an L.A. production of The Bacchae that ultimately tripled its run (a fistfight ensued over tickets one night) and was nominated for several L.A. Theatre Awards. He and producer Lorenda Starfelt began thinking of it as a possible movie, although Starfelt originally envisioned a $60,000 project filmed in someone's backyard. Blessed saw a copy of the script and instantly agreed to play Teiresias; Starfelt and Mays are close to landing one rather hot young actor as the doomed rationalist Pentheus, and the new $5 million budget is just about in place.
With the exception of slight reallotments of dialogue -- Agave shows up earlier in the film, and Teiresias has much of the Chorus dialogue near the end -- the structure is extremely faithful to Euripides. Still, don't expect to see togas and wreaths. "It is a setting purely of the imagination," says Mays of the film. "Mythology isn't history. This myth existed long before Euripides wrote it down, so setting it in Hellenistic times ultimately makes no sense."
Each character's syntax matches his or her personality: Pentheus and Agave use the clipped, modern cadences of modernity, while the Bacchae speak more like what Mays calls "ecstatic wood nymph hippies." "The modern theatrical language is much more visual," as he puts it, so much of the introductory action alluded to in the Prologue is here shown, as are the Bacchae's orgiastic rites and subsequent slaughter of Pentheus. Starfelt and Mays have approached several indie rock artists to contribute songs to the soundtrack, and a few large names have agreed. Filming is tentatively scheduled to begin in August. Between "The Bacchae" and a reportedly dazzling reel of Julie Taymor's blood-and-guts "Titus Andronicus" retelling, which unspooled at the Cannes Film Festival, maybe Jack Valenti and his congressional watchdogs may stop shouting about Doom and "The Matrix" and start denouncing Shakespeare and Euripides for their pernicious effects on today's youth.
As far as I know, Tim Burton still holds the rights to Sweeney Todd. This combination has always struck me as just about perfect; no other director comes close to his skill at imbuing Gothic menace with a quirky visual wit, and he has as keen a sense of the narrative power of music as any working director. (It is odd to think of Burton collaborating musically with anyone but Danny Elfman, though.) Rumors have swirled around for almost 10 years, and Burton had recently announced plans to direct "Sweeney Todd" after his misbegotten "Mars Attacks!", but he's currently working on "Sleepy Hollow" with Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci and has been tight-lipped about his next project.
So I was shocked and delighted to hear that talks are on once again for a Burton "Sweeney." Christine Baranski and Kelsey Grammar recently starred in a high-profile concert staging of Sweeney in Los Angeles, and Baranski in particular apparently made quite an impression with the producers. Several male names have floated through the rumor mill over the years -- Jonathan Pryce being a personal favorite -- and Stephen Sondheim has in the past suggested interest in revising some of the music. However, this project has made it pretty far along in the talking phase before, only to sink into development oblivion. If anybody hears anything more concrete, please let me know.
Cutting-Room Floor: As if producing new plays both on Broadway (The Weir) and off (The Lime Tree Bower), Conor McPherson is once again trying his hand at movies. McPherson, who wrote the hit Irish thriller "I Went Down" last year, is currently wrapping up work on "Salt Water," the film adaptation of Lime Tree. This time he directed as well as wrote the screenplay. The cast of three has expanded to 47, as the various stories told within the play are now depicted. For example, Brian Cox, who starred in McPherson's St. Nicholas, plays the father, a character discussed but never seen in the play. "Salt Water" does not yet have an American distributor. ... Both upcoming film adaptations on the Showtime cable network feature interesting role reversals from previous incarnations. George C. Scott, who played the Clarence Darrow surrogate in the recent Broadway revival of Inherit the Wind, jumps over to the prosecutor's table for the May 29 Showtime film. This time Jack Lemmon is defending the mild-mannered biology teacher (Tom Everett Scott). And Paul Sorvino, the coach in the June 6 "That Championship Season," has been involved with the piece since its 1972 debut. He played Phil in both the original stage production and the 1982 film; Terry Kinney takes over the role in the latest version. ... My apologies about a factual error (long since remedied) in my last column. It was John Cassavetes, not Ben Gazzara, who starred in "Rosemary's Baby." I don't know what possessed me.
Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine and a theater critic for Back Stage.