Carbon-copy Darko adaptation leaves no marks

by Beacon Staff • November 7, 2007

As a follower during my high school years of the Darko cult sensation myself, the thought of seeing a play adaptation left me giddy with anticipation.,The biggest highlight of Donnie Darko, the stage adaptation of Richard Kelly's cult classic 2001 film, was that it was only eighty minutes long with no intermission. Judging by the looks on the actors faces at curtain call, this feeling was mutual.

As a follower during my high school years of the Darko cult sensation myself, the thought of seeing a play adaptation left me giddy with anticipation. There was a peculiar fascination about this strange film-the way there were no clear-cut answers to the underlining meaning and how it incorporated multiple unlikely genres such as sci-fi, the apocalypse, and teen romance.

The play, however, is miserable in comparison and, even as an autonomous production, does not make much sense. At first it seemed that Donnie Darko may be impossible to translate to the stage, especially with its music-video-like imagery but it's more than just that. From the directing to the acting, all the way to the production design, the play is simply a bland imitation, not an interpretive adaptation.

To fill in the plot for those who haven't seen the film yet and plan to catch the play, Donnie is a disturbed teenager who, in the wake of the 1988 presidential election, meets Frank, a six-foot tall rabbit who tells him that the world will end in 28 days, six hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. When Donnie returns home he discovers that a jet engine has crashed through his bedroom; therefore Donnie has escaped death's plan. In debt to Frank for saving his life, Donnie is unconsciously forced to cause havoc as the world comes to an end.

As a fundamental rule in the process, if an artist decides to do any sort of adaptation, it must contribute a significantly fresh perspective to the original work. If not, then what's the point in trying to simply mimic something that is already respected? The play brings nothing new to the table. Line for line, the dialogue has not really changed, but taken straight from the film's screenplay. The art direction is similar, insofar as the costumes and set design are concerned. Also, the music sounds like a lame, royalty-free version of the tunes used in the film.

The directing is simply awful. Director Marcus Stern appears to have instructed the actors to be forceful and overemphasize line delivery throughout most of the play, while the cast of Kelly's version was much calmer.

Sometimes, there even seemed to be almost no acting involved, such as in the opening scene during dinner with the Darko family. Lines were said back and forth, but no one was really reacting to what was being said. It's as if the actors were just doing a script rehearsal and wanted to get it over with as quick as possible.

The level of acting by the younger performers is amateur (think High School Musical), while the older, more seasoned actors were on par.

It wouldn't be surprising if Dan McCabe, who plays the titular trouble teen, had chugged a few Red Bull vodkas right before the show. He plays Donnie as hyperactive, unlikable and terminally annoying in the midst of really bitchy teen angst, while Jake Gyllenhaal played the role in the film as a calm, mysterious, likeable yet dangerous character. How is the audience supposed to care about what happens in the story if they don't have sympathy for Donnie? Donnie is constantly angry at his parents, friends, teachers, girlfriend and Frank. There's no understanding in his character.

Perhaps his exasperating performance is not all his fault, though. Throughout the show, McCabe is asked to run from opposite ends of the stage for the scene change, and naturally, he is out of breath. This is no way to begin a new scene, especially if Donnie is supposed to be lying down calmly on a couch, talking to his psychiatrist.

Flora Diaz does a mediocre job portraying Donnie's girlfriend, Gretchen Ross, who is meant to be cute and compassionate. She comforts Donnie, and offers him unconditional companionship, even in the midst of his growing insanity.

As the conservative mother/school teacher, Kitty Farmer, American Repertory Theatre veteran Karen Macdonald delivers some of the best acting. She is believable, funny and, at times, compellingly scary. A highlight is the scene in which she begs Mrs. Darko to chaperon the Sparkle Motion dance team to Los Angeles for a national competition.

The director also made questionable casting decisions as Cherita Chen, a chubby Asian character, is played by a white, blond-haired girl. Why the director simply didn't either change the character's last name or get an Asian girl to play the role is baffling.

Granted, it's difficult to live up to the expectations of such a beloved cult classic film. Regardless, this stage adaptation fits into the recent succession of dreadful film-to-stage adaptations (The Wedding Singer, High Fidelity).

Unfortunately, even with its faults, the play is probably bound to find an audience among the blindly faithful followers of the movie.

While the film version was a clever John Hughes meets David Lynch-esque metaphor for a teenager's growing understanding and confusion of the world around him, the play seems to have lost that surreal charm and turned Donnie into an angry, whiny replicate. The play only understands the "emo" in "emotional." The only apocalypse happening in this unimaginative adaptation is the destruction of theatre.

Donnie Darko is being performed at the Zero Arrow Theatre at Harvard Square until Nov. 18.