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When “Donnie Darko” first went into wide release, a tragic coincidence gave the film an enormous and unanticipated thematic significance. Writer/director Richard Kelly could never have predicted that his tale of a young man facing a deadly plane crash and an imminent apocalypse would hit screens a scant few weeks after the Twin Towers fell.
But even if America had been spared that national trauma, the movie would still stand today as a revelatory meditation on one of humanity’s deepest and least tangible emotions: dread.
If only Marcus Stern’s ambitious stage adaptation of “Darko,” currently playing at the American Repertory Theatre’s Zero Arrow Theatre, could re-capture that dread. Sadly, Stern’s interpretation, full of manic energy and bluster, doesn’t arrive at any emotional truths and ends up as forgettable fluff, both confusing and confused.
The surreal exposition of the play is the same as that of the film: One night in 1988, a friendless high school student named Donnie (Dan McCabe) sees a man-sized rabbit with a horrifying mask, calling himself Frank. Frank (Perry Jackson) tells him in a terrifyingly distorted voice that “the world will end” in 28 days, and saves Donnie from a freak accident. For the next month, Donnie does whatever Frank tells him, upsetting the delicate social balance of his emotionally repressed suburb in the process.
The problem with the production is not that it’s unfaithful to the film. Even on its own terms, the play is severely handicapped. Stern’s directorial choices seem to be at war with his script’s content. He insists on directing the show as if its lines revealed a gripping plot, even though the vast bulk of the text deals primarily with detailed character-study and sociological observation.
And yet, Stern keeps all the scenes clipped, rarely letting his actors—or the audience—ruminate about anything for more than five minutes at a time. Thus, on the rare occasions when a scene becomes tender or graceful, it feels out of place.
The rapid-fire pacing sets the show up as a sci-fi whodunit. “Who, or what, is Frank?” we wonder. “And what will happen in 28 days?” In the end, the play answers those questions, but Stern seems to be in an awful rush to get there.
In a gross directorial misstep, Stern makes McCabe physically run from spot to spot on Matt McAdon’s bare-bones set. At one moment, he’s lying down in a therapy session at the bottom-right corner of the stage. But before the therapist finishes her last sentence, Donnie is forced to jog to the upper-left corner to have a quiet romantic moment with his new girlfriend.
McCabe ends up yelling or whining most of his lines; indeed, he shouts in nearly all of his scenes. We can’t blame the actor, though—it’s probably impossible for any boy to sprint, abruptly stop, and suddenly whisper sentences about impending doom or sexual confusion.
Most of the company is similarly blameless, but that doesn’t make them interesting to watch. Karen McDonald gets a few laughs as an uptight, dim-witted gym teacher. Thomas Derrah is more entertaining as a motivational speaker, but is never on stage long enough to exude anything other than superficial sliminess. Sarah Jorge Leon, as one of Donnie’s teachers, is the only performer who actively wastes her own stage time, sounding immature in scenes where she should be speaking as the voice of reason.
The play is not without its pleasures, though. Jackson plays Frank with an understated elegance that makes his character utterly horrifying. Scott Zielinski’s deep-crimson lighting design, combined with Clint Ramos’s rabbit costume, make Frank’s scenes the show’s most resonant. Flora Diaz manages to squeeze genuine, nuanced emotion out of her all-too-brief appearances as Donnie’s girlfriend. Two plane crashes occur in the play, and both are believably and innovatively staged.
But the show ultimately writes a thematic check that it cannot cash. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about ”Donnie Darko” comes from a line spoken by its protagonist near the end of the play: “Everything is gonna be fine.” Yes, Donnie, it’s all fine—but with such rich source material and such relevance to post-9/11 anxieties, shouldn’t it be more than just fine?
—Crimson reviewer Abe J. Riesman can be reached at email@example.com.
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