Donnie Darko Boffo at The American Repertory Theatre

The Pending End of the World with an Edgy Teenager and his even Edgier Rabbit

By: - Nov 01, 2007

Donnie Darko Boffo at The American Repertory Theatre - Image 1 Donnie Darko Boffo at The American Repertory Theatre

At The American Repertory Theatre (ART)
Zero Arrow Theatre
Zero Arrow Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
Based on the screenplay by Richard Kelly
Adapted and directed by Marcus Stern

October 27 - November 18, 2007

TICKETS ONLINE or call 617.547.8300
Performance running time: one hour, twenty minutes with no intermission.

The year is 1988. Michael Dukakis was running for President of the United States. Young Donnie Darko,a brilliant but troubled teenager, is lured outside his home and confronted by a six-foot dark rabbit named Frank. He tells Donnie that the world will end in precisely 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. Donnie awakes in a golf course on the putting green and returns to his house to discover that a jet engine has crashed through his bedroom roof and ceiling. If Dukakis's run for the Presidency wasn't enough, this story gets stranger and even more haunting. However, you better get your tickets fast. Seats will be hard to get. This is as good a show as I have seen in quite awhile.

This Donnie Darko live production is a brand new and brilliant adaptation of the now 2001 cult film classic The film starred Drew Barrymore and provided Jake and sister Maggie Gyllenhaal a platform to eventual stardom. Donnie Darko is a hyperclever pop cultural homage to middle class mores and folkways, nods to the Twilight Zone and horror movies as well as to the underside of suburban teen-age angst. Added to the stew are dollops of science fiction time travel, psychiatric mumbo-jumbo, good and bad teaching methods, criticism of parental guidance, adolescent sex, tele-evangilists spreading the good word but living by another set of principles, and an indictment of our entire educational system as well as an evisceration of our contemporary culture. In other words, it is a not so simple story.

Marcus Stern, who directed 2006's The Onion Cellar returned to ART's Zero Arrow Theatre to create a stage version of one of the most discussed strange small films of the recent past. A midnight flick favorite at the Coolidge Corner Theatre for many years, this play uses brilliant and often amusing stagecraft to tell a story that keeps us thinking and often smiling. Donnie  painfully searches for reasons that things happen even if the activity makes him upset. He is in a race against time. The countdown continues through the play, and Frank keeps appearing to Donnie often like the witch in the mirror to Snow White issuing instructions and handing him tools of impending destruction. Donnie in turn causes physical harm to school and to others. This is because the Big Rabbit told him to do it.

A word about Frank is needed. Frank could mean a symbol of forthrightness, bluntness and guilelessness. Frank could stand for the mythic monster Frankenstein. This is Donnie's monster. Frank is also the anti-Harvey. Harvey was the title of a 1950 film based on Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, starring James Stewart and Josephine Hull. The story is about a man whose best friend is named Harvey, a six-foot, three and one half-inch-tall rabbit. Harvey is a pooka, a mischievous magical creature from Celtic mythology. Harvey is rather benign where Frank is malevolent.  Harvey is amusing while Frank is just plain scary. Frank has strong parts of the killer rabbit that attacked President Jimmy Carter (1979) in a rowboat and the .44 Caliber Killer's claim that a neighbor's dog (Son of Sam), was possessed by a demon that commanded him to kill (1977). Based on these things, Frank is certainly quite weird and at times just a bit unnerving.

The play has several subtexts. Donnie's high school science teacher Dr. Monnitoff tries to help him figure out what is going on scientifically and in reality but is constrained by the educational system (or is by society?). His high school English teacher is fired for teaching an immoral Graham Green novel. His psychiatrist is embarrassed about his adolescent sexual fantasies. There is a crazy old lady who checks for nonexistent mail every hour who several decades ago wrote a book titled The Philosophy of Time Travel. She is known around town as Grandma Death and was a former teacher at his high school. As Miss Sparrow's book states, Donnie eventually realizes that wormholes may allow for the possibility of time travel.

Eventually, Donnie pieces together clues that make him think that he could use the wormholes to save the world from disaster and obliteration. Along the way, he gets together with a reluctant girlfriend Gretchen who has a dysfunctional family, he interacts terribly with his own slightly less dysfunctional family, and he fights with teachers that get his after school activities suspended for six months. Yet, he was always speaking the truth. Is this clearly a Frank influence? Was Donnie literally being Frank?

Various characters appear throughout the play suggesting specific odd personality traits, strange eccentric types and just universally flawed human beings. There was not a sour note or a miscue from any of the actors. ART's Donnie Darko has a superb ensemble cast. It was a blended symphony of words and motion. Did I say that the sets by Matthew MacAdon were outstanding, visually interesting and at times aesthetically fascinating? Sound also seemed to have feeling in the show. This was also part of the director's magic along with David Remedios. Lighting was atmospheric and evocatively communicative by Scott Zelinski.

Individual performances were notable and many. Starting with the teen-aged neurosis/psychosis of Donnie himself, played wonderfully by Dan MaCabe, I am not sure if anyone could have performed the role much better. ART regulars, Remo Airaldo (political and bureaucratic Principal Cole). Thomas Derrah (flim-flam artist Jim Cunningham), Karen MacDonald (whining and misdirected teacher/mother Kitty Farmer) and Will LeBow (Donnie's disconnected dad, Eddie) all were distinctive and totally immersed in their roles.

Greta Merchant brought life to the ghostly Grandma Death. Gretchen Ross played by Flora Diaz was exactly the type of girl that Donnie would have gone with. Spot on as they say in England for Sarah Jorge Leon's English Lit teacher, Thomas Kelley's rebel punk without a cause and DeLance Minifee's various incarnations. Paula Langton was a wholesome, confused but so lovely Donnie's mother. All the other actors were refreshingly good as well.

Hard to describe in succinct terms, this Donnie Darko play is simply terrific. If you don't see it, it is your loss. Maybe, that's what the story is about--loss? Or is it about just what Elmer Fudd always said, "Kwazy Wabbit?"