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To Stage or Screen a Story.
By Elyse Sommer
Writer/director Fran Kranz initially planned to tell his story as a play. Hardly surprising since Kranz is a stage actor. But the realities of the theater business made it hard to get producers on board for a play about four people sitting around a table talking, and often just listening. But Kranz was undeterred and opted to present his story as a film, which would allow his characters emotionally powerful interchanges and silences to get the kind of closeups only available on screen — where everyone watching has a front row seat.
As a movie, Mass enabled Kranz to open things up by showing the actors outside the room made available to them by a church a distance from where they all live. It also let him add actors to play the social worker who arranged this meeting and two of the church's members. While the focus remains on the actors and their attempt to heal their respective griefs, the few scenes with these peripheral characters does help to ratchet up the tensions that envelop everyone and everything.
Mass is all too timely given that similar tragedies continue to traumatize students, teachers and their families. That makes this hard to watch rather than escapist fare. That said, it needs to be seen. These parents' conversations and silences add up to an unforgettable drama brought to heartwrenching life by a stellar cast of actors with prestigious on and off-Broadway credentials — Reed Birney and Ann Dowd as the perpetrator's parents, Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton as the parents of one of his victims.
I've seen and admired them all in some of their most impressive roles. In Reed Birney's case, I've been privileged to meet him personally. Dedicated as he has been to his stage work, he's said during a recent interview to promote Mass that he's currently commited himself to focus more on film work with its new challenges. Admittedly, the still unburied pandemic also makes him uncomfortable about returning to live theater as performer or audience member in a venue with seats too close together.
The biggest challenge of film work for him and his fellow stage actors is that in theater they have a chance to fine tune a performance. When filming a story, once the cameras roll, that's what all current and future viewers will see.
I'm happy to report that Birney and his colleagues got it all right despite the fact that those cameras rolled for Mass after just a few rehearsals. Mass is a triumph of meaningful, moviemaking. It retains the feel of a stage play that was adapted after a successful run for the big screen. For viewers old enough to remember the golden era of early television it will be a reminder of the many wonderful intelligent dramas by playwrights like Reginald Rose and Paddy Chayevsky.
While Mass was well received at its Sundance Festival premiere, it had a very limited theatrical run. Thanks to its availability at Hulu it can now be seen by the larger audience it deserves — which makes a strong case for making small shows like this immediately available at home screens as well the large screens of a movie theater.
The Imitation Game— Graham Moore's 2014 film about Alan Turing is now available at Netflix.
The chance to revisit or catch up with this watchable-as-ever movie is a welcome example of a streaming platform's catering to subscribers hungry for a chance to see quality new work and catch up with ones they missed or will find worth revisiting.
As Mass features top stage talent, The Imitaton Game features high profile TV and streaming platform talent. Playing the mathematical genius whose work won World War II is Benedict Cumberbach. His team of gifted and dedicated mathematicians includes Matthew Goode and Matthew Beard prior to their turns in Downton Abbey.
Graham Moore's screenplay turned the story of Turing and his company's around-the-clock efforts to break into the code wit the Germans' to outline their assault plans. The film was thriller that was also very personal since it included Turing's having to suffer the mistreatment of homosexuals at that time. The current anti-gay laws some Trumpists are actually passing gives the film an unfortunate relevancy.
a As for whether a story is best dramatized as a stage play or a film, the Turing story proves that, if done well, it can work both ways. Thirty years before Graham Moore scripted The Imitation Game, using a book as his foundation, playwright Hugh whitmore wrote his own original play entitled Breaking the Code. He thought Turing's story would be a perfect role for Derek Jacoby. And so it was. Jacoby did full justice to the role both on Broadway and in a BBC film version. While I didn't see Breaking the Code in 1986 I saw a terrific production at Barrington Stage the same year that The Imitation Game first hit the big screen (
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