Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
July 13, 2012
William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist and the subsequent 1973 film adaptation by William Friedkin is perhaps best remembered for some of Friedkin’s most bracing side effects. The spinning head of Regan, in a career defining performance for better-or-worse by the young Linda Blair, moments of levitation, and spewing vomit still come to mind for an entire generation of movie audiences for which Friedkin’s version of The Exorcist was synonymous with horror. It seems an unlikely choice for a stage adaptation, but when Blatty entrusted the project to playwright John Pielmeier, he was most taken with the plans to treat the story differently than it was in that most famous of films. Peilmeier, working with stage director John Doyle, wanted to craft something more organic, intense, and visceral than what audiences might remember from the film. And they have managed to do so with The Exorcist, which is now receiving its world premiere at The Geffen Playhouse in L.A. But while the play may manage to get out from under the film's shadow, it simultaneously doesn’t necessarily offer the strongest argument for why this particular story matters in a contemporary context.
Pielmeier has updated the action of the story to more contemporary times and filled the show with modern references to ethnic wars in Africa and other recognizable headlines. He and John Doyle have also largely done away with much of those touchstone special effects. While Emily Yetter, the young actress playing Regan, gets a workout with acrobatic flailing throughout the show, the levitation and contortions of the possessed child are more implied than explicitly expressed. Doyle has also gone for his trademark concise staging contained in a small area surrounded by the entire cast around a central table. Those actors not participating in a scene often provide the dramatic vocal effects of the possessed Regan from the other side of the partitions that delineate the central area where scenes flow together, one into the other with only minimal demarcation. It’s like Doyle’s Sondheim shows without the musical instruments.
This stripped down look does provide the show with a narrative intensity that sometimes comes on too quickly. The concluding sacrifice of Fr. Damien Karras, a quite good David Wilson Barnes, seems almost a postscript to the action, it comes and goes so quickly. But at the same time, the leanness of the show provides for a shift of focus in thematic content. Pielmeier’s version provides more space for the spiritual and moral themes of the piece to take center stage. The show becomes less about the specter of the demonic child, and more about how we process and rationalize all the day to day horrors in this world. Some of the best dialog on these topics come from Richard Chamberlin who takes over the role of Fr. Merrin famously played on screen by Max von Sydow. Opposite him the show’s other big star, Brooke Shields, plays Regan’s mother, Chris MacNeil. Shields has the toughest job in the show charged with giving a convincing portrayal of a woman who—we are to believe—comes to feel an exorcism will be the best course for addressing her daughter’s increasingly bizzare behavior despite her modern disdain for the thought of such a practice. She almost gets there, but it’s a fairly thankless stretch for a character to ask the audience to identify with her even as she launches into a campaign for the most fantastic and unbelievable aids for her daughter.
But despite some good things here, I still couldn’t help feeling that the show had completely shaken off the past. It’s one of these shows where one wonders about what the story has to tell us that is actually new or insightful. It’s familiar to the point of being taken for granted at times despite the shift in focus. But it is tightly constructed overall with well paced performances that might make those who miss those heady days of early 1970s horror films shiver a little bit.