Volume 78 - Number 23 / NOVEMBER 5 - 11, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photos by Aaron Epstein

Left, Keith Carradine, as psychiatrist Dr. Farquhar, has a skeleton in his closet that’s about to fall out. The nurse played by Kathleen McKenny, right.

Expect the unexpected

By Scott Harrah

Legendary British film auteur Ken Russell – the Oscar-nominated director of “Women in Love,” “Tommy,” “The Boy Friend,” “Altered States” and countless cult movies – has directed many operas in the United Kingdom, but at age 81, he’s never tackled a stage play – until now. When he read the script for Anthony Horowitz’s thriller “Mindgame,” which played London’s West End back in 2000 and had a two-year tour of Britain, he insisted on directing it. “Mindgame” opens on Nov. 9 and stars venerable Tony nominee and Oscar winner Keith Carradine.

“It was an exceptional play, and when I read act one, I needed a scotch,” Russell said in a phone interview. “By the time I got to the end of act two, I’d pretty well finished the bottle. It really sets a sense of trembling. And that was just reading it. To imagine it acted out, I just couldn’t resist. I thought this is a chance of a lifetime. I also thought it would make a wonderful film, so I spoke to the author and he said it started off as a film, so film or stage, it’s a humdinger.”

Russell describes the thriller as a “not a whodunit but a who was it?” The story centers on a writer of pulp crime novels who gets the chance of his career to interview a serial killer. When the writer arrives at the insane asylum to speak with the madman, nothing goes as planned. Through a series of lies, manipulations and memories, dark secrets are revealed. There’s a skeleton in the closet of the doctor’s office, strange raw meat in the refrigerator, and a nurse who seems oddly on edge. Co-stars include Lee Godart and Kathleen McNenny. Keith Carradine, who plays psychiatrist Dr. Farquhar, explains that the play is sort of like “Sleuth” meets “Silence of the Lambs.”

For Ken Russell, considered the “enfant terrible” of avant-garde British cinema and TV, directing a suspenseful play like this has been especially satisfying.

“The thing about directing stage work is the joy. You can go from beginning to end the whole time,” Russell said. “You can see how the characters really develop, whereas in a film you often shoot the ending first and then the beginning. A stage play is a sort of gift. You can really get into the heart of the character in a progressive sort of matter. You get used to guessing right, but it is much easier to develop [than in a film] and change accordingly. So I am having a ball.”

Russell directed such operas as “Madame Butterfly,” “La Boheme,” “Die Soldaten,” “Faust” and “Salome” in the 1980s and 1990s. He considers the tragic elements of classic opera to have many similarities to “Mindgame.”

“It’s an opera without music,” Russell said of the play. “Except that I will probably have music in the play to enhance the moments of terror. There are lyrical moments. The interesting thing is how the characters develop and change in very surrealistic ways.”

Russell has many ongoing projects besides “Mindgame,” including an upcoming adaptation of “Moll Flanders” with Barry Humphries. Russell writes a column for the film section of the Times in England and also has been a visiting professor at the University of Wales and University of Southampton.

Classical music is also one of Russell’s passions. After serving in the British merchant navy, he suffered a nervous breakdown, and music helped nurse him back to mental health. One of his most popular films is 1970s “The Music Lovers,” a biography of Tchaikovsky starring Richard Chamberlain as the flamboyant composer and Glenda Jackson as his wife, with a score by Andre Previn.

“Music opened up an entire world for me,” Russell said of his love for classical composers. “I couldn’t hear music at one time without thinking of amazing pictures, so it was a stepping stone toward directing films.”

Besides films dealing with music, Russell is best known for motion pictures that explore controversial topics. Russell said the film he’s perhaps most proud is the 1971 religious thriller “The Devils,” starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave. The film, which depicts corruption in the Catholic Church and sexuality among nuns, is still considered so shocking that Warner Brothers refuses to release an uncensored version on DVD in the United States. On the off-Broadway stage, however, Russell is able to spread his creative wings and explore unsavory topics that Hollywood steers away from.

Taboos certainly abound in “Mindgame,” which focuses on the macabre. When casting “Mindgame,” Russell was pleased when Keith Carradine was chosen to play psychiatrist Dr. Farquhar. “He’s a very fine actor and I’ve admired him for a long time,” Russell said.

Keith Carradine jumped at the chance to work with Russell. “He’s fabulous,” Carradine said in a phone interview on a break during rehearsals for the show. “He certainly brings his own distinctive point of view to the work and that’s what we were all expecting. He wraps his brain around this kind of material. He’s gonna push it into some interesting corners. He’s just the perfect match for this.”

Carradine won an Oscar for Best Song for “I’m Easy,” the theme for the Robert Altman film “Nashville,” was nominated for a Tony for his lead role on Broadway in “The Will Rogers Follies,” and most recently worked on HBO’s “Deadwood” and the Showtime series “Dexter” (also about a serial killer). On “Dexter,” Carradine received much acclaim for the role of special agent Frank Lundy. He said there are many similarities between “Mindgame” and “Dexter” because both shows focus on a murderer.

“ ‘Mindgame’ deals with the psychology of that kind of sickness – the serial killer, and the psychosis that lies behind people who do things like that,” Carradine said. “That’s what ‘Mindgame’ is really looking at and it’s investigating that personality type, and what might be the underlying sources of the anxieties and phobias that lead people into that sort of violence.”

Carradine was seen on Broadway in 2005 in the musical “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” in which he also played an Englishman. “I sort of played English [in that show] but then of course the character was a faux Englishman; he was actually from Detroit,” Carradine said, adding that his character in “Mindgame” is a bona fide Brit. “This is very specific and this is a thriller. It’s just exhilarating for me to get back to the theater, which I try to do on a regular basis, but it’s wonderful to come back to something as meaty as this. With something like ‘Deadwood’ and ‘Dexter’ and now ‘Mindgame,’ I’m having the chance to play within the framework of really good writing, and that’s what we actors live for.”

Carradine, who will turn 60 on his next birthday, said he’s proud to still be working at his age, “which is saying something in this business.” He just finished “Peacock” with Susan Sarandon, Cillian Murphy and Ellen Page in which he plays an “odd, shy private bank clerk with a rather rich secret life.”

Carradine comes from a family of actors. His father John Carradine was the legendary character actor. Keith worked briefly with his brother David on the 1970s TV series “Kung Fu.” Carradine’s daughter, Martha Plimpton, who’s also a stage actor, received a Tony nomination for “Top Girls” this past spring, and is currently in rehearsals for the Roundabout revival of “Pal Joey,” opening in December.

Carradine expects that “Mindgame” will thrill audiences. “I think it’s the kind of evening that you’ll want to come back and see again and again,” he said. “You’ll want to look at it again the way people wanted to see ‘The Sixth Sense’ again. It has that kind of circular puzzle aspect. Expect the unexpected.”

Ken Russell echoes that thought. “I can’t tell you the story and give away the happy ending — the horrific happy ending,” Russell said. “We’re sort of playing mindgames with the audience; they’re very much a part of the show, and their reaction to the events that unfold.”

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