It takes chutzpah to adapt a horror movie classic for the stage, especially one as iconic as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, one of the highest grossing films ever. Nominated for ten Oscars (and winning two for Adapted Screenplay and for Sound), The Exorcist not only spawned two sequels and a prequel, it was named Scariest Film Of All Time by Entertainment Weekly and

 The audacious adapter in question is Scottish director John Doyle, perhaps best known for having had the chutzpah to take Stephen Sondheim’s 27-performer, 26-musician Sweeney Todd and revive it on Broadway with a grand total of 10 performers doubling as the orchestra.

Doyle’s stage version of The Exorcist turns out to be to Friedkin’s movie what his Sweeney Todd was to its original Broadway production, a version of the material with its own particular merits, but one which at the same time loses certain key elements due to its stylistic changes and downsizing.

Movie fans will recognize the film’s basic plot twists and many (though not all) of its characters. As in William Peter Blatty’s screen adaptation of his novel, there’s movie star Chris MacNeil (Brooke Shields), residing temporarily in the Georgetown neighborhood of our nation’s capital with her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Emily Yetter) while shooting her latest film. There’s also Father Merrin (Richard Chamberlain), the elderly priest/archaeologist summoned to exorcise the demon that has possessed Regan, and faith-challenged exorcism assistant Father Damien Karras (David Wilson Barnes), still reeling from the death of his elderly Greek mother. Also returning from the film are Burke Dennings (Harry Groener), director of the movie Chris is currently shooting in DC; a third priest, Father Joe Dyer (Manoel Felciano); and Dr. Samuel Klein (Tom Nelis), who attempts unsuccessfully to help Regan through medical means.

 Though both film and stage play open with Father Merrin, gone is the battle with the demon Pazuzu that starts off the movie. Instead, playwright John Pielmeier has Father Merrin challenging the audience with a statement, something to the order of, “To those who doubt the existence of evil, I have only three words. Auschwitz. Cambodia. Somalia,” To bear testament to this evil, Pielmeier has added a new character, Chris’s personal assistant Carla (Roslyn Ruff), a Rwandan atrocities survivor. There’s also a second physician added to the mix, a certain Dr. Strong (Stephen Bogardus).

Film fans will also recognize key plot elements in its stage adaptation—Regan’s speaking in tongues (a “language” that turns out to have a simple explanation); the profanity that emerges from Regan’s mouth in a voice not her own, that is when she’s not spewing vomit or expelling other bodily fluids; and the particularly violent way Regan disposes of one of the above characters when he gets in her way. There’s even a doozy of a levitation scene, by creative consultant Teller.

Stylistically, Doyle’s The Exorcist has a good deal in common with his Sweeney Todd. Both take place on dark, abstract sets. Both keep cast members onstage throughout as observers/Greek chorus. Both take a highly stylized approach, one which has its merits but at the same time creates its own set of problems.

 Doyle’s Sweeney suffered from a lack of clarity. Those unfamiliar with the original production may have had a hard time knowing exactly what the devil was going on in that insane asylum. What’s missing for the audience in The Exorcist is a sense of personal investment in Chris and Regan’s life-and-death battle against evil. Pielmeier’s stage adaptation plunges us so quickly into Regan’s demonic possession and keeps mother and daughter at such a distance from us that we end up not caring about them as much as we should, nor do we particularly share their agony, other that whatever sympathy we may feel because of Shields’ innately likeable persona and what little we get of Regan pre-possession.

At the same time, I can recall few stage productions that have created such an atmosphere of suspense and impending danger, doom, and gloom, thanks in large part to Dan Moses Schreier’s eerie—and virtually nonstop—sound design, one that holds you deep in its spooky spell from start to finish, aided and abetted by Sir John Tavener’s haunting original music and Jane Cox’s dramatic lighting. Sudden bursts of sound and flashes of light are guaranteed to provoke audience gasps, if not outright screams.

 Exorcist film fans may also find Doyle’s approach more than a tad artsier than they’d like. Characters speak to each other from opposite sides of scenic designer Scott Pask’s figurative, mostly black set, and there’s probably a bit more philosophizing about the existence and nature of good and evil than many theatergoers feel the need or desire to sit through. Still, Doyle does many things right, creating a real sense of foreboding, immersing us in a world in which demons hold sway, and eliciting some very good performances from his cast.

Barnes makes a strong impression in the pivotal role of the troubled, haunted Father Damien, while Chamberlain invests Father Merrin with an appropriate sense of gravitas. Groener’s colorful drunk of a Burke Dennings gets better and better the drunker he gets. Bogardus, Felciano, Nelis, and Ruff offer solid support in performances which include providing ominous whispers and demonic voices from the sidelines.

 Whatever heart there is in Doyle’s bone-cold staging is due to the stellar work of its mother-daughter leads. Shields has grown from a charismatic preteen movie star to an equally charismatic albeit far more gifted stage actress. Though Doyle’s approach makes it hard for us to care about Chris and Regan’s dire straits, Shields does her utmost to make us feel Chris’s fear and pain. And then there’s UCLA grad Yetter, utterly convincing as a character who just happens to be the same age Shields was when she debuted in Pretty Baby. In the play’s few pre-possession moments, Yetter makes us believe in Regan’s sweetness and innocence. Later, as the devil makes her do strange and horrible things, the gifted young actress does feats of enormous physical dexterity and strength without the aid of special effects.

Pask’s somber costume designs match his all-black set, one which suggests cathedral latticework. Adam John Hunter is production stage manager and Young Ji is assistant stage manager.

John Doyle’s The Exorcist will not be everyone’s cup of tea, too frightening for some, too theologically philosophical for others, and simply too different from a favorite film for still others. At the same time, for those with a taste for the dark and the dramatic and a desire to be scared in a way few plays even promise, The Exorcist makes for a uniquely creepy-crawly ninety minutes of theater.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.

–Steven Stanley
July 12, 2012
Photos: Michael Lamont

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