Bringing the End of the World to Life
by Sarah Wallace
If a rabbit named Frank tells you the world will end in a month, you should pay attention. In director Richard Kelly’s film Donnie Darko, a troubled teenager receives this apocalyptic warning, catapulting him into a metaphysical thrill ride. Since its premiere in 2001, Donnie’s journey has captivated young filmgoers. Despite its status as a cult film, this special-effects film seems an unlikely choice for the stage, due in no small part to a plot that demands the protagonist to travel through time. Yet for director Marcus Stern, Donnie’s voyage belongs on the stage.
The idea to adapt Donnie Darko came to Stern at the most artistic of moments — channel surfing one evening. Says Stern, “I stumbled into the middle of this movie. I had no idea what was happening, but I was immediately drawn in. I couldn’t flip the channel.” The fragments he had seen stayed with him. “I rented it, watched the whole thing, and loved the story.” The blend of science fiction, mystery, romance, spirituality, and humor appealed to Stern as a perfect recipe for the theatre.
Anyone can relate to Donnie’s journey. Remove the time travel and six-foot-tall rabbits, and we’re left with a young man, lost in the world, trying to discover his purpose. Stern believes that the key to the film’s popularity lies within Donnie’s struggle towards adulthood and his budding romance with Gretchen. “People like the story,” says Stern, “because they relate to the characters and the journey they take.” Everyone remembers the magic (or awkward embarrassment) of their first kiss or the struggle to be understood. The film encompasses both the highlights and low points of being a teenager — raging hormones, first love, illicit house parties, rebellion against authority. Yet the film’s young characters embody an emotional depth missing from most teen movie clichés. Even for audiences whose adolescence is a distant memory, Donnie’s struggles and triumphs will not seem so foreign.
With these ideas in mind, Stern set to work bringing Donnie Darko to the stage. Stern wanted to remain as close to the original script as possible. “It’s a great film. I feel like if I diverged much at all I would be breaking something that’s not broken.”
Staying faithful to the film, however, will require directorial ingenuity. A science-fiction mystery, Donnie Darko begins with a bang — a plane smashes into a house. This disaster sets Donnie’s journey in motion. Besides plane wrecks, time portals, car crashes, and fiery infernos all play featured roles in the story. Stern will not shy away from the fantastical elements. He embraces the challenge to make them come alive on stage.
The production, however, will guide the audience through the plot’s murky waters. Many audience members of the film walk away with a slight sense of confusion. Film director and screenwriter Richard Kelly kept the ending vague: “When I was writing the script, I was so afraid that if I clarified the ending any more than I did, the film would collapse. ... I chose to only go so far in answering the questions that the film raises.” While honoring Kelly’s intention, Stern says, “Our attempt will be to illuminate a bit more what is happening in the science-fiction aspect of the story.” Yet like Kelly, the production will not give all the answers.
Stern is no stranger to the kind of aesthetic found in Donnie Darko. “The theatrical work I tend towards,” he says, “has a cinematic vocabulary, quick cuts, short scenes, fast moves, and overlapping fragments. It’s an aesthetic I enjoy.” In last season’s production of The Onion Cellar, Stern worked in this visual vocabulary to great effect. Combining such dissonant elements as a live performance by “Brechtian-punk” duo The Dresden Dolls, the absurd (a girl wandering around in a bear suit) and scenes from domestic life (a father mourns the death of his estranged daughter), Stern created an original theatrical collage of rock music, dream imagery, comedy, and tragedy. Donnie Darko will also live within this aesthetic realm.
Donnie Darko begins with an ending. Frank warns Donnie, “Twenty-eight days, six hours, forty-two minutes, twelve seconds, that is when the world will end.” By listening to Frank, these twenty-eight days may bring Donnie closer to understanding who he is. This prediction allows for an exhilarating cinematic adventure. Stern hopes to take the audience on an equally electrifying journey.
Sarah Wallace is a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theatre Training.