Over the years, we've seen a number of low budget stage versions of horror films, often with a level of camp: Silence Of The Lambs and Evil Dead have been given their own musicals, and from my own experience I can declare that Re-Animator: The Musical is one of the best productions I've ever seen, with Stuart Gordon's original splatter classic making a shockingly smooth transition to the stage - at times it seems as if Gordon had songs in mind all along.
Because of this, I had to clarify for more than one person that the stage version of The Exorcist, which premiered this past week at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, was not some goofy take on William Friedkin's landmark masterpiece. No songs, no winks, no "splash zone" for sprays of pea soup, this was a straight, thoughtful adaptation by John Pielmeier that went back to William Peter Blatty's original novel for inspiration. Using only a single set and a one act structure under the direction of John Doyle, the script didn't deviate much from the story you'd know, but still became very much a different beast.
Skipping over Iraq, the story begins with Chris (Brooke Shields) seemingly speaking about faith to no one in particular (or the audience), only for her to stumble on a few words and then pull out a script - she's just rehearsing her lines for the film she's in Washington DC to shoot. Her director Burke Dennings (Harry Groener) arrives on scene and they discuss her character's motivation and such - already we're in very different territory here, as Burke's presence in the film was severely limited, to the extent that I could never tell if Chris was being truthful when Regan asked if they were dating. Here (as in the book), their platonic relationship is much more clear, and Groener steals every scene that he's featured.
Not long after things start feeling more familiar. Regan interrupts a party by peeing on the floor, a priest named Damien loses his mother and his faith along with it, the doctors can't quite figure out what's wrong with Regan, etc. Because of the one set structure, the scene transitions aren't always perfect; characters from scene B will begin talking as the characters in scene A are reaching the end of their discussion, and both will use the same table in the center of the stage for different reasons - the examination table becomes a bed, the bed becomes a dinner table, etc. It took a little bit of adjustment to get used to, and even then some were a bit jarring, but overall it worked well (being familiar with the story from seeing the movie several times probably helped as well).
As for Father Merrin (Richard Chamberlain), his role is primarily as narrator until he enters the story near the end for the exorcism. He addresses the audience directly, speaking on matters of science vs. religion, the existence of the Devil, etc. I'm not sure if these bits were taken from the book (I'm finally reading my copy now, but I haven't gotten far) or created specifically for the play - there's a minor joke about The Omen that couldn't possibly have been in the original text - but they actually work quite well in this context, and Chamberlain's presence is formidable. Even if some of the "The Devil is in all of us" type stuff can be a bit hokey to my ears, he makes it work, the same way Morgan Freeman can make even his dialogue in junk like Hard Rain sound classy.
In fact nearly all of the performances were solid; Emily Yetter as Regan had some big shoes to fill, but she handled it with ease (and even managed a respectable attempt at the head turn!), and Shields had no problem conveying the movie-star demeanor that her character required (if anything she's even more believable as a high paid romcom actress than Ellen Burstyn). The only one I had trouble connecting to was David Barnes as Damien; he felt a bit stiff at times and almost TOO laid-back at others - I was actually reminded of Michael Moriarty more than once, to give you a better idea. It's not that Barnes is a bad actor; I think it's more that he was playing the role much differently than Jason Miller, whereas the others (particularly Groener) were obviously influenced at least in part by the actors in the Friedkin film. Curious to see how someone who hasn't seen the movie would react to his performance.
On that note, there are two missing characters here (three if you count Karl the housekeeper; "Willie" has been changed to "Carla" though, so they're sort of combined). Kinderman is absent - Burke's death is explained through the priests and Chris, without any suspicion of Regan. And Sharon the live-in babysitter is also gone, however, this allows more time to get in some stuff that the movie left out, such as the fact that Chris had another child who died young, and also pointing out that "Captain Howdy" might just be a variation on Howard, Regan's father. One thing about the movie that is often overlooked is that it's actually an ensemble piece, with several characters never interacting and having their own agendas all related to this one incident, and the stage version does a fine job of reinforcing that idea. For example, Burke has a lengthy scene with the priests - they never even met in the film.
Oh, and it still manages a few scares. Yetter's head turn is creepy as hell, and the few jump scares yielded successful jolts for the audience. There's a major blood effect near the end that was just more confusing than anything else, but otherwise the horror elements worked well in this setting. I suspect that the reason so many of the horror properties brought to life on stage go the campy/silly route because it's so difficult to make effective scares without the tricks that movies allow (i.e. editing, and to a lesser extent special FX), so it's great to see them try and succeed.
The play runs until August 12th at the Geffen; tickets are still on sale for most performances. Not sure what their plans are for after that, but I would imagine that the small set would allow for it to travel pretty much anywhere (albeit with the cast changes, naturally). I would highly urge anyone that is a fan of the basic story to check it out if you can - there aren't many horror films that I think can be presented in this medium without losing much of their power, but hopefully the success of this will encourage others to try without resorting to gimmicks.