VIDEO: Carolyn Clay on Donnie Darko
For further indication of the darkening zeitgeist, consider the personae of imaginary rabbits. The six-foot invisible bunny befriended by Elwood P. Dowd in the 1944 Harvey is a far cry from the long-eared, Darth Vader–voiced apocalyptic bunny of the 2001 cult-hit film DONNIE DARKO. Hell, if Glenn Close were to boil up menacing doomsayer Frank, you’d be relieved — though it would play havoc with filmmaker Richard Kelly’s tale of a troubled teen beckoned by the man-sized beast from his bed during the presidential campaign of 1988, and thus avoiding — at least temporarily — a jet engine through the chest. Harvey began life on Broadway and then became a Jimmy Stewart film. Kelly’s sci-fi fantasy has gone in the opposite direction, with American Repertory Theatre associate director Marcus Stern’s faithful stage adaptation receiving its world premiere courtesy of the ART (at Zero Arrow Theatre through November 18). If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Kelly should be pleased. Complete with surly family dinner-table talk, Stephen Hawking time-travel theories, and menacing appearances by the rabbit with an ax, this is as close to Donnie Darko as you’re likely to get without a camera and Jake Gyllenhaal.
One could ask the point of the exercise — other than to play Pied Piper to a younger theater audience — when the film is available to be bought or rented, interpreted, and dissected on various Web sites. And Stern, though he comes up with some surreal stage visuals, is not out to reinvent the wheel. “We’re not changing it,” he told the Phoenix of his approach to the material. “We’re bringing it to an audience to witness live” the strange journey of the title character, a brilliant and possibly psychotic teen who comes under the influence of the commanding man rabbit — invader from a parallel universe or figment of his imagination — who predicts the end of the world by the end of the month and authorizes various acts of destruction on the eve of destruction. Questioning the existence of God and Fate, the hypocrisy of Man, the stability of the time-space continuum, and the efficacy of his meds, unlikely hero Donnie comes to believe he can save the planet — or at least his loved ones — by plugging a wormhole in time and submitting to a kind of martyrdom.
At Zero Arrow, on a set by Matt McAdon, the world of the film is stretched across the stage, from the Darko domicile to the golf course where Donnie wakes from sleepwalking after the rabbit to a classroom in his suburban high school that doubles as a movie theater to his shrink’s office. From the stage-right wall protrudes the front of a fatal automobile, and above all hangs the whirligig of time, a miniature house and plane caught in the tangle of its wheel spokes. The locations are lined up so that Dan McCabe’s scruffily suffering Donnie can sprint from frame to frame of the cinematic script. And everywhere there are doors, mirrors, and frames waiting to house the sinister image of Frank and other tableaux. As in Tiny Alice, there is a diminutive replica of the family residence, into the roof of which, during a high-school talent show, an entire toy plane (not merely an engine) is interpretively danced.
Moody atmospherics are among Stern’s strengths as a director — witness his masterful opening-up of Adam Rapp’s monologue Nocturne. Here he flashes between memorable images from Kelly’s film and a few of his own, between the film’s soundtrack and his and David Remedios’s delicately spooky sound design. But the director can’t duplicate the movie, and he doesn’t try to transform it. He does maintain its not-quite-logical momentum and its Breakfast Club component, in which ’80s high-school life and hierarchy are sent up with a vengeance. (ART stalwart Karen MacDonald is hilarious as sugary, censorious gym teacher Kitty Farmer.) Folks unfamiliar with the movie will almost certainly be bewildered by the penultimate sequence of events involving masked robbers and a hit-and-run. But even as Darko initiates are scratching their heads, they may be moved by the ending, which is more mournful live than on film, with the sacrificial lamb centerstage on a gurney as “Mad World” plays itself out, assuring us that the dreams in which he’s dying are the best he ever had.
Company One is on a roll, following its terrific area premiere of Mr. Marmalade with a lively and touching production of Lydia R. Diamond’s flavorful adaptation of Toni Morrison’s first novel, the 1970 THE BLUEST EYE (at the BCA Plaza through November 17). Diamond, who is both a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists and a Huntington Playwriting Fellow, has expertly encapsulated Morrison’s novel, retaining not only its devastating if heavy-handed story of a young girl destroyed by racial self-loathing in 1941 Ohio but also its sensual, lyrical prose, from opening metaphor — about marigolds that fail to flourish, as does the child born of incest when Pecola Breedlove’s father “dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt” — to doleful, poetic conclusion.