I have a particular fondness for the “scary movie” genre, having designed many of these kinds of films in my career. When I heard that the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles was going to be putting up a production of perhaps one of the most famous (and scary) movies of all time – The Exorcist – I knew I had to see it. How do you translate the fear, horror, and especially special effects (head spinning, projectile vomiting, crab walking and defying gravity) of the original film to the stage? I was really curious.
I wanted to see the play and then talk about its correlations to the film – how did they address the characters, the look of the film, the costumes, the fear – but having seen the play, I’m afraid I can’t do that. The play is a completely different animal.
The play looks at the material from a philosophical point of view. It is less about the scares and more about religious identity, belief and mythology. The question that the play seems to pose is, “Is it real if you don’t believe in it?” That is to say – if you don’t believe in demons, can they possess you? If you don’t believe in religion (or in heaven/hell) are you subject to its punishments?
Like any good demon movie, the 1973 film presupposes a religious belief that includes the devil, demons, hell and so on. The film does not even give the audience a choice to ponder whether or not it’s relevant; their belief is a foregone conclusion, or perhaps, requirement. The play, however, asks the audience to wonder.
In my opinion (and I base this on twenty years’ worth of work on scary movies) here’s how scary films/stories operate. A film is scary for one of three reasons: 1) Religious-based fear (demons, the devil, hell – examples: The Exorcist, The Devil Inside, Stigmata); 2) Reality-based fear (serial killers, demented people, abusive sociopaths – examples: Psycho, Halloween, The Shining, Silence of the Lambs); or 3) Filmmakers create/tell you what to fear (zombies, vampires, aliens, viruses, science fiction – examples: The Ring, Jaws, Poltergeist, Scream, Paranormal Activity, Piranha, Alien).
The Exorcist only works as a scary piece IF you believe in a religion that tells you that demons and the devil exist and are scary. In 1971 (when the book was written) and in 1973 (when the movie was released), our relationship with religion was different. We live now in an age of a kind of enlightenment, socially and technologically speaking, for sure. What was once a societal mandate (religious practice) is no longer.
This play would not have gone over quite as well in 1971. Our contemporary brains have been bombarded with defiant questioning of religion from everyone from Madonna to Joseph Campbell to artists like Serrano to the Da Vinci Code to South Park. Countless embezzlement and sex scandals have plagued churches, so it’s not exactly heresy to question one’s religion anymore. But back in 1971, when abortion was still illegal and interracial marriage was only newly legalized, religion was viewed differently. Therefore, the shift in zeitgeist has allowed for the reimagining of this material from scary film, poking at the sensitive religious beliefs, to intellectual puzzle.
The film builds suspense and fright slowly, methodically, using music and editing to heighten the experience; it seeks to scare. Who can forget the insane spinning head of Linda Blair? It is macabre, groundbreaking, and sickening. Special effects, foley and music help to make the film nightmare-inducing forever.
The play doesn’t seek to scare. There are a couple of loud music cues and perhaps two special effects in the play, and they are (by today’s standards) kind of Lo-Fi. The costumes and set are equally minimalist. The palette for the play is black/white/grey. Period. No color whatsoever in the set or in the costumes. The play is set in a contemporary milieu, and the scenery never changes. Nothing moves – no walls fly out or twist open; no painted backdrops are lowered on to the stage, nothing. Designer Scott Pask wears two hats here – he designed both the set and the costumes. They harmonize beautifully to set a spartan, somber tone.
Actors stay in the same costumes for the duration of the play (with exceptions of a few men who change into black cassocks). Everything is very straightforward, and with the exception of Father Damien (David Wilson Barnes), all of the priests (including Father Merrin, played by Richard Chamberlain) wear long black cassocks throughout. Regan (Emily Yetter) wears a white nightgown with white pantaloons (thankfully sparing the audience from looking right up her gown as she writhes). It is slightly oversized to make her appear more childlike. Chris (Brooke Shields) wears dark grey pants with a cream t-shirt and lightweight dark grey cardigan. Burke Dennings (Harry Groener) wears a black suit with dark shirt, then changes to a long black cassock. Father Damien, questioning his faith, wears a rumpled grey sport coat over grey shirt and pants. Later he dons a cassock. The absence of color is depressing; it mirrors the bleak landscape of lives lived without meaning. The theme of the play is that despair is the devil’s victory… and from the color palette in this play, we are meant to believe he’s winning.
This play is so minimalist; I don’t think any of the actors even leave the stage, ever. The set is a suggestion – you must use your imagination to envision it as a living room, then bedroom, then office. It’s so interesting to me. I thought they would have aimed in a different direction. For such a high-profile play, it’s shockingly austere. It’s nice to be surprised once in a while, though – and these choices were definitely thought-provoking.
So, contrast that with the film – faded 1973 colors, aged and older, worn-looking costumes – it’s apples and oranges. The play is a distant, glimmering puzzle. The film is a punch to your guts. I am so glad that I had the opportunity to see the play, and am pleasantly surprised by the adaptation that writer John Pielmeier undertook here. It’s definitely not what I expected, and that is refreshing. Hats off to David Wilson Barnes for a wonderfully nuanced and realistic performance. Try to see this play if you can – I look forward to hearing your thoughts, Frocktalkers!!