Live theater has always been a bit of a mystery to me. While I’m not necessarily a complete novice when it comes to the performing arts, I’ve been to several live wrestling shows, and that’s kind of like theater. Whenever I see a play, I’m reminded of that endlessly reliable quote from L.P. Hartley about the past being a foreign country. Simply replace “past” with “theater” and you sum up my feelings nicely. For someone more comfortable with movies and TV, they definitely do things differently onstage.
Besides wrestling and some local productions of Shakespeare, I have been to a couple interesting shows over the years. During my angsty teen years, I saw the Phantom of the Opera a couple of times (has there ever been a more perfect metaphor for an “alienated” and self-involved youth to latch on to?). I saw the highly entertaining Priscilla Queen of the Desert on Broadway a few years ago (see my review here), and last year I was lucky enough to see Kristoffer Diaz’s amazing play, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.
During all of these performances I have tried to learn and understand the nuance and appeal of this unfamiliar medium. What made live theater so unique and compelling? I wasn’t quite as flippant as the just-wait-until-they-make-a-movie-out-of-it crowd, but I also wasn’t too far from it either. So when I was flipping through the theater schedule at the Geffen Playhouse last year after seeing Chad Deity and saw that they were doing a stage production of The Exorcist, adapted by John Pielmeier from the William Peter Blatty novel, I resolved that this was something I could not miss. Not only did it just seem like an interesting concept for a show — Teller from the magic duo Penn and Teller was a consultant — but I figured it would also help me in my continuing education in the world of the theater.
Unlike the other performances I had been to, this show contained content I had engaged with before. I knew The Exorcist, I have seen the movie countless times, I was aquatinted with the book, and I even knew a priest who was friends with the priest that Father Merrin was based on. With this background knowledge I figured I could do comparisons between the play and the film, see what was kept and what was changed, and in that, see the fingerprints of the director in order to better understand the creative choices that were made. I figured that I would not be going into the darkened theater unarmed this time. Instead, I would be an active participant instead of a passive observer.
This perspective proved to be both useful and a hindrance. While a rudimentary understanding of the film is useful in order to capture elements of the plot that the quick 90-minute play does not explore in great detail, remembering the film also sets you up for imprecise expectations. While the movie has many strengths that make it a classic, one of the enduring elements of its legacy is its visual brutality. The twisting head, the vomiting, and the little girl jamming the crucifix between her legs while screaming, “Fuck me, fuck me!” all confronted the viewer with a shocking and explicit form of cinematic expression. That, coupled with the haunting images of the devil that appear for just a few frames towards the end of the film, have created a legacy of the grotesque that often overshadows the film’s more subtle elegance of tone and mood.
The play does not follow the same route. Eschewing the more extreme and brutal elements of the film, the production’s director has instead chosen a more minimalist approach in both design and execution. The actors all stay onstage during the entire performance, moving around a barren set, where a handful of props are constantly used to represent different objects in varying situations. This is not a show meant to create a hyper-realized version of the world, with elaborate tech and complicated set design. It is subtle and creates an illusion of reality that perfectly captures the eerie tone without needing to spray buckets of pea soup onto the audience.
The play’s principle underlying strength is its atmosphere. The overall feeling of the play challenges the viewer to let down their natural defenses when it comes to being scared. Just like the film itself, so much of its success depends on the viewers giving themselves over to the world of the story, letting themselves – if you’ll forgive the pun – be possessed by it. With the harsh swearing and random shots of Regan gyrating pornographically in bed, the play might be funny instead of creepy if you are not mentally in the right frame of mind. If you fight what you are seeing, you might roll your eyes at the casualness of Father Karras (played by David Wilson Barnes) with his “Sooo…you’re the devil, huh?” attitude or find Father Merrin (played by Richard Chamberlain) and his frequent expositions about the history of exorcisms that punctuate the first half of the play a little intrusive. But if you let yourself be pulled in by the atmosphere that the show’s designers have clearly put a lot of time into constructing, then you will no doubt find the minimalism in set and the excellent use of lighting and sound truly unnerving.
The decisions made in the blocking of movement are another of the play’s strengths. The constant movement of the characters around the stage and the way they manifest themselves in the story in different ways gives the performance a constant fluid motion that creates a sense of ritualism, underscoring the sacred rite that is at the center of the story. There is a dramatized and codified nature to an exorcism just as there is in a play, and that self-aware use of the formula, reinforced by the lack of an intermission, is used to full effect. There are no acts in this play in the traditional sense, but one fluid event in which the nine characters participate fully for the entire show.
While all the actors do an excellent job, Regan naturally bears the full weight of the show’s ultimate success or failure on her shoulders. Deciding not to cast a child in the roll of the poor possessed girl, the producers instead chose actress Emily Yetter for the daunting task. At five-foot-two and with a voice that can be either girlish or scary as required by the scene, she does an excellent job internalizing and then expressing the torments of a child possessed by the devil. Brooke Shields gives a solid performance as Chris MacNeil, Regan’s mother, but besides reacting to the supernatural events surrounding her, the play does not provide the veteran with many opportunities to show her levels. Barnes likewise gives a competent performance as Karras, the priest who is losing his faith. Besides Yetter, the two performers who really capture the audience are Chamberlain and Harry Groener. Groener portrays the drunken director Burke Dennings, whose character has been given more interesting levels than provided in the film. Chamberlain does a magnificent job capturing the quiet dignity of the elder priest Father Merrin, and while I would have imagined him a little more world weary, that is probably a result of my expectations based on Max Von Sydow’s performance in the film. Overall the play was well cast and well performed.
While so much of production was interesting and well done, there is one small flaw that does diminish the overall success and effect. Simply put, the ending was too quick and the special effects payoff was too little. The culminating scenes in which the exorcism finally takes place proceed swiftly and end rather abruptly given the pacing of the first 2/3s of the show. The whole story is leading towards the confrontation with Merrin and the Devil and when it at last comes, the final result is somewhat anticlimactic and felt like they were racing to the conclusion.
Moreover, the technical payoff was also disappointing. Throughout the play, special FX slowly and subtly increase in complexity as Regan’s possessions become more intense. This subtle escalation in effect, even within the scaled down context of the play, makes you feel like they are moving towards something that never quite comes. And this expectation for something bigger, and more epic is not an unfair desire based on preconceived notions stemming from the film, but is instead a result of everything within the play that has come before. The cast, the blocking, and the creepy atmosphere have all concentrated the tension and energy of the performance into the moment when good truly and finally confronts evil and Regan is saved from the devil’s torments. And while there are some very cool effects during the conclusion, there is ultimately a feeling that much of the pent up energy is left un-channeled. The minimalism in design paradoxically creates a promise for a culmination that it is never able to deliver on. The play ends, not with a bang, but with a call for reflection by Father Merrin who asks the audience to meditate on the nature and motivation behind sacrifice and the prevalence of evil in the world. Nourishing fare perhaps, but somehow not as filling as one might have hoped.
Regardless of whatever feelings of lingering disappointment I might have felt at the conclusion of The Exorcist, the play was a crucial addition to my growing understanding of the medium and a highly enjoyable show for both novices and more seasoned aficionados of the theater. So much was accomplished using so little and the overall effect was chilling and undeniably creepy. If nothing else it was able to pierce the layers of jaded cynicism that have been built up after years of overexposure to bad scary movies and provide a genuine thrill. For that alone the play commands my respect, and I advise to all who are intrigued to definitely check it out.
The Exorcist is running through 2 August in Los Angeles. Tickets are available here.