Friday, July 13, 2012

The Exorcist

A review by Cynthia Beckert

The Exorcist by John Pielmeier at The Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles

July 8, 2012

Right off the bat, let me tell you that the little girl’s head does not spin around and no pea soup is vilely disgorged. But the stage version of William Peter Blatty‘s novel The Exorcist - made famous by the 1973 film with a vomit-spewing, noggin- twisting Linda Blair - is wonderfully and horrifically disturbing nonetheless.

Written by John Pielmeier, whose 1982 breakout hit Agnes of God also dealt with issues of psychology and faith, this adaptation, receiving its world premiere not on Broadway but right here in Los Angeles at The Geffen Playhouse, brings the audience directly in to a world of supernatural terror using the simplest and most effective theatrical tricks in the book.

Upon arriving at last Sunday’s preview matinee and taking my place in the very last row of the pack 500-seat theatre (tickets were neither cheap nor easy to come by – most of the run is already sold out), I was immediately struck by the impressive stage picture created by scenic and costume designer Scott Pask (Tony Award winner for The Book of Mormon and The Pillowman). Ornate wrought iron grillwork suggesting the mysterious and imposing nether reaches of a Catholic cathedral comprised a huge three-sided box that framed the playing space and focused attention on an altar-like table and a pair of gothic wooden chairs, the only stage furniture employed in the story. Hanging with ominous bulk at an improbable angle above all this was a massive wooden cross, which managed to simultaneously convey a comforting, solid presence and the threat of crushing obliteration.

Immediately following the house manager’s announcement to silence all cell phones (an appeal which went largely unheeded as no less than five cell phones went off during the course of the 95-minute play), the actors filed out unceremoniously and took their places. Having done no prior research on this production other than noting that Pielmeier was the playwright, I was surprised to find that it starred Richard Chamberlain as the titular priest and Brooke Shields as the possessed girl’s mother. Having seen Chamberlain as Henry Higgins in the 1993 national tour of the Broadway production of My Fair Lady, I knew he had stage chops and a good sense of comic timing. I was aware that Shields had done an impressive handful of Broadway musical leads, earning a Theatre World Award as Rizzo in Grease. But I had no idea as to how they would fit in to this dramatic concoction. I can attest that Chamberlain still looks great in a cassock, even thirty years after his portrayal of the priest Ralph de Bricassart in the TV miniseries The Thornbirds, and that at a formidable 6 feet in flats, Shields is his equal in presence and stature.

These two famous faces were part of a flawless nine-person ensemble, all but one of which (the 18-to-play-younger Emily Yetter as the possessed 10-year-old Regan) have multiple Broadway credits. Standouts were David Wilson Barnes as the doubt-ridden and ultimately heroic Father Damien Karras, and Harry Groener as the tragic director of comic films, Burke Dennings. (Groener impressed me all to heck in The Geffen’s 2009 production of Equivocation, and was delightful in a recurring role as the demon-friendly Mayor of Sunnydale in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) The cast remains onstage for the entire show, slipping into the shadows behind the iron grating when not in a scene to function as sort of a Greek chorus, giving voice to demons and other faceless characters. Their presence is felt even in their absolute silence, their attentive stillness adding to the energy of the scenes rather than distracting from it.

Half the cast has strong musical theatre credits, and director John Doyle (famed opera director and Tony Award-winner for the recent Broadway revivals of Sweeny Todd and Company) puts their triple-threat sensibilities to good use. The staging is fluid and non-literal, with scenes and action merging in to each other with the natural ease of a well-choreographed musical. Actors carry furniture and adjust props for each other as they move out of one scene and in to another, ensuring a seamless narrative which never allows the audience to settle back in to the reality of their theatre seats. Original music by Sir John Tavener underscores the simple scene shifts, while the creepiest soundscape I have ever heard in a theatre gnaws continually at the edge of consciousness, sometimes just this side of audibility.

I credit sound designer Dan Moses Schreier with the title of special FX artist in this production, because it is his subtle mixing of whispers, moans and demon tongues that kept my skin crawling and stomach churning throughout the entire show. All the actors are miked, not for projection purposes, but in order that Schreier’s sound tech might manipulate their voices in real time to create a satanic symphony of mad chatter and cries from the tortured darkness. The unease created by the sound design was often so subtle that I wasn’t even aware that my shoulders had crawled up to my ears, and then there came noises so loud and sudden that I jumped in my seat as if thrashing awake from a nightmare. And you couldn’t close your eyes and escape the terror because the sound still echoed inside your body and hummed along the bones at the base of your skull. There were moments when my reptile brain was really and truly afraid. Meanwhile my mammal brain - the one with the acting degree – reveled in the power of theatre to manipulate imagination.

In addition to the sound scares there are also satisfying visual effects aplenty, moments that make you question what your eyes are actually seeing. These are staged with elegant simplicity by director John Doyle and executed with flawless grace by the actors. Emily Yetter’s strength and flexibility allow for some truly disturbing contortions as young Regan’s demonic possession advances. A single white sheet is manipulated and continually repositioned with dexterous cunning to allow dramatic tricks to be played with the audience’s perception. Teller, of Penn and Teller fame, is credited in the program as a “creative consultant,” and though his contributions are not specifically noted I feel certain that the creepier sheet moments are of his devising, as well as a wholly unexpected and visually satisfying climactic technical effect which I will not reveal. (Based solely on what I saw in The Exorcist, I would love to have seen Teller’s Macbeth that toured the East Coast in 2008 to rave reviews. If you want magic on the stage, bring in a magician.)

Lighting designer Jane Cox has collaborated previously with director Doyle on numerous theatre and opera productions, and their simpatico is a thing of beauty. Cox creates dramatic pictures in a basically empty space, sculpting beams of light and making solid what was ephemeral. Doyle creates wonderful stage pictures full of tension by placing actors at extreme distances, very close and very far apart, and Cox’s lights often serve as subtle focus-pullers, blossoming on a character’s face as revelation slowly dawns or fading away and abandoning them to the darkness of their doubt and fear.

This is a very theatrical piece of theatre, and I love it for that fact. I enjoy theatre that functions most effectively only as theatre, that requires the audience’s cooperation and participation for the successful transmission of its themes and energies. The world premiere of The Exorcist at The Geffen Playhouse is good, solid theatre. You enter the play’s reality from the moment you set foot in the auditorium and, like any really good horror story, you find yourself unable to escape until after the house lights come back up. There is no intermission, no break in the constantly building tension. Your heart will beat fast, your breath will catch, you will gasp, you will flinch, you will laugh and you will even be required to have a complex thought or two. It is a theatrical possession that you will thoroughly enjoy.

Note: I have been notified that because the show is selling so well there will be no Goldstar or rush tickets offered. But you can contact the Geffen’s volunteer coordinator David Gerhardt at and arrange to usher and see the show free. If you can afford the ticket prices, book your seats now – the show just opened and the run is already selling out.

The Exorcist runs through August 12th at Geffen Playhouse.

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