THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Reclaiming them for the stage

Companies tackle shows identified with the movies

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / September 13, 2009

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Melia Bensussen and her children had just finished watching Jonathan Miller’s 1980 BBC film adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew,’’ starring John Cleese as Petruchio, when her 10-year-old daughter turned to her and cried: “Oh my God, Mom, what are you going to do with this?’’

Bensussen, you see, is directing “Shrew’’ in a production this fall by the Somerville-based Actors’ Shakespeare Project. Even before her daughter’s cri de coeur, Bensussen was fully aware she had stiff cinematic competition in the 1967 Franco Zeffirelli version starring two larger-than-life figures who happened to be married to each other at the time: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

“We all have our terrors of these things,’’ admits Bensussen. “For all performers and creative artists working in a field that renews material, we all have these demons. What we all have to do is just push that aside and treat it like it’s never been done before.’’

It seems like asking for trouble to stage a play or musical that has already been adapted into a well-known movie. Yet theater companies from Boston to Lenox to Providence are choosing to do just that in the fall season. With a world of works to choose from, why compete with celluloid versions that are just a few Netflix clicks away?

The obvious answer is that nothing, not even a classic film, can match the experience of live theater. It’s also likely that theaters are banking on a certain built-in audience for familiar works. Still, if that is a safe choice on one level, it can be a risky one on another. Consider a few of the cinematic ghosts that actors and directors will have to chase off the stage this fall:

■ The Publick Theatre Boston will present Edward Albee’s scorching drama of marital combat, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,’’ which memorably pitted Taylor against Burton in the 1966 movie directed by Mike Nichols. Meanwhile, Trinity Repertory Company in Providence is having a go at “Cabaret,’’ doubtless knowing it will forever be associated with Liza Minnelli, star of the 1972 film directed by Bob Fosse.

■ In Lenox, Shakespeare & Company will present a stage spoof of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles,’’ which has gotten a thorough workout on film (in 1939 with Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and in 1959 with Peter Cushing in the role), as well as in TV adaptations.

■ However sterling its cast in “Mister Roberts,’’ the New Repertory Theatre cannot hope to match the massive star power of the 1955 movie featuring Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, and a young Jack Lemmon. A similar challenge confronts the cast of the Nora Theatre Company’s staging of “The Caretaker,’’ the Harold Pinter play that became a 1963 film in which Alan Bates, Donald Pleasence, and Robert Shaw gave the performances of their careers.

■ “Mamma Mia!’’ is probably bullet-proof, but the production at the Colonial Theatre in December will still have to contend with the fact that a film version starring Meryl Streep came out just last year. As for “The 101 Dalmatians Musical,’’ which arrives at the Citi Wang Theatre in December, it will be doing battle with memories of the 1961 Disney animated classic as well as the 1996 live-action version of “101 Dalmatians’’ starring Glenn Close and Jeff Daniels (and a 2000 sequel, “102 Dalmatians’’).

■ Finally, how’s this for a meta-quandary: Topol, who played Tevye in Norman Jewison’s 1971 “Fiddler on the Roof,’’ will compete against the memory of his own film version when he stars in “Fiddler’’ at the Opera House in November.

The question recurs: Why go there?

Some directors just can’t resist the chance to get their interpretive mitts on a classic work - and even to correct what they see as a flawed film version. Indeed, Publick Theatre Boston artistic director Diego Arciniegas, who is directing the Publick’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’’ with Tina Packer as Martha and Nigel Gore as George, says the movie is “part of my reason for wanting to do the piece in the first place.’’

“In the film, because of Taylor and Burton, it became more of a star vehicle,’’ says Arciniegas. “But I really see it as an ensemble piece.’’ Consequently, he plans to put more emphasis on Nick and Honey, the young couple who largely serve as spectators to the verbal warfare between George and Martha. “I actually think Nick and Honey are way more disturbed than George and Martha,’’ says Arciniegas.

His cast, including Kevin Kaine as Nick and Angie Jepson as Honey, is well aware that the movie version creates daunting expectations for them. “I know it’s something they’re thinking about,’’ says Arciniegas. “They’re apprehensive about living up to the role. It’s my job to tell them there’s more than one way to skin a cat.’’

While the film ends with George and Martha in a tableau of desolation, Arciniegas thinks that misses the mark. The play “raises troubling questions about the nature of marriage, that there can be a dark side, but it also seems to make a statement about how intimacy can be achieved between two people,’’ he insists. “The relationship wins at the end.’’

When Tony Simotes, the new artistic director of Shakespeare & Company, agreed to direct “The Hound of the Baskervilles,’’ he knew immediately what he was up against. (Just to be sure, he and the cast watched the earlier “Hound’’ movies, along with other Sherlock Holmes films and episodes of the TV whodunit “Murder, She Wrote.’’)

“We’re not only fighting the great movies and those images up on 35-foot screens, but also that whole industry of forensic shows on TV, like ‘CSI,’ ’’ says Simotes. “Everybody is into clues and how do you put it together. We’re fighting a major battle, because we have no technology onstage to come close to what the movies do.’’

However, Simotes believes the stage will confer certain advantages on his largely comedic take on the story. “We don’t have to create fog or have someone riding in a hansom cab,’’ he says. “Through sound - the London streets, the train, the hound - we can play to the theater of the mind. The audience fills it in, much like a radio play.’’

Bensussen also hopes to bring new layers to “Shrew,’’ she says, partly by framing it as a modern-day metaphor for “the many compromises we make in marriage, in politics, in academia’’ and partly by staging it in contemporary garb and in an unusual setting: Downstairs at The Garage in Harvard Square.

And as for the movie version? “Some people will bring Liz and Dick,’’ she acknowledges. “Some will bring [memories of] their own parents. Some will bring their own struggles in their own relationships. All these things serve as enriching background.’’

Besides, Bensussen adds with a laugh, “As someone once said, if you think you’re being original, you just haven’t done your research. And yet we keep on searching for our original voices.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

Topol, star of the 1971 film 'Fiddler on the Roof,' returns as Tevye this fall. Topol, star of the 1971 film "Fiddler on the Roof," returns as Tevye this fall.

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW Actors’ Shakespeare Project. Downstairs at The Garage, Cambridge. Oct. 14-Nov. 8, 866-811-4111, www.actorsshakespeareproject.org

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Publick Theatre Boston, Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts. Oct. 1-Oct. 24, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com

CABARET

Trinity Repertory Company, Providence. Sept. 11-Oct. 11, 401-351-4242, www.trinityrep.com

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox. Sept. 18-Nov. 8, 413-637-3353, www.shakespeare.org

MISTER ROBERTS New Repertory Theatre, Watertown. Sept. 13-Oct. 3, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org

THE CARETAKER Nora Theatre Company, at Central Square Theater, Cambridge. Oct. 1-Nov. 1, 866-811-4111, www.centralsquaretheater.org

MAMMA MIA! Colonial Theatre. Dec. 15-Dec. 27, 800-982-2787, www.broadwayacrossamerica.com

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF Boston Opera House. Nov. 3-Nov. 15, 800-982-2787, www.broadwayacrossamerica.com

THE 101 DALMATIANS MUSICAL Citi Wang Theatre. Dec. 23-Dec. 27, Subscribers to Broadway Across America-Boston: 866-523-7469. Members: 866-551-7469. Groups: 866-633-0194. Public on-sale date to be announced later

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