‘Donnie’ goes darkly to stage

ART takes aim at cult film's young fan base

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Can an enigmatic cult film about a troubled teen, a six-foot rabbit named Frank and the end of the world find new life — and maybe new auds — on stage?

“Donnie Darko,” based on Richard Kelly’s 2001 film, receives its stage preem at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., in a production that runs Oct. 27-Nov. 18.

Marcus Stern, who helmed the theater’s popular, genre-bending “The Onion Cellar” in collaboration with local rock group the Dresden Dolls, stages his own adaptation of the indie pic, which starred a 20-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal as the angst-filled, time-traveling protagonist. Cast also included Mary McDonnell, Patrick Swayze, Katharine Ross, Noah Wyle and Drew Barrymore (whose film company produced). But the movie, which prominently featured a jet engine crashing into a suburban home, disappeared quickly from theaters shortly following 9/11.

Subsequent DVD sales resulted in the quirky, open-to-interpretation, teen-centric film becoming one of the millennium’s first cult classics. “Donnie Darko” websites, blogs, online forums and even a British documentary about the film’s obsessive fans added to its continued longevity. A second “Director’s Cut” DVD, which added 20 minutes to the film, was released in 2004, following a brief theatrical reissue, further fueling the ranks of “Darkoists.”

But a special effects film that featured time portals, car crashes and burning buildings would seem an unlikely candidate for the stage. Make that the small stage — ART’s Zero Arrow Theater seats 300.

Stern, however, didn’t see it that way, saying the project fit in with the type of non-realistic theater to which he is drawn.

“The style of the show went along with the essence of the story itself,” he says. “There’s one guy, lost and struggling as he goes through such a surreal event (the jet engine crashing into his bedroom) which creates this enormous variety of other imagistic, reality-melting events. We’re watching something happening inside and outside Donnie’s head.”

Filmmaker Kelly greenlit the theater’s request to do a stage adaptation two years ago when it was a school project for ART’s Institute for Advanced Theater Training, where Stern teaches.

Matthew Garrity, a college chum of one of the actors in the sold-out workshop, snatched up the stage rights, and when ART decided last year to give the work a full production, it licensed the work from Garrity.

“The workshops brought in a whole new, younger, audience that hadn’t been coming to the theater, and everyone took note of that,” Stern says. “It was similar to when I did ‘The Onion Cellar’ ” — a cabaret-theater-rock concert amalgam that attracted large crowds in its environmental, newly created nightclub space.

Younger auds, he says, connect with things that have a contemporary pace and a different hard-core aesthetic. “You’re seeing actors and music and everything collide really fast, back and forth, which to me reflects what younger audiences are going to in general. It’s a nice world for me to play in.”

There is industry attention on the project, but the economics of a transfer may be problematic, says ART managing director Rob Orchard.

The production calls for 19 actors in more than 70 sometimes-overlapping scenes in the 110-minute show, filled with a wall of sound and music (including nearly all the tracks from the film). But Stern’s conception for the work necessitates an intimate playing space, and that doesn’t translate to large net revenues, Orchard says.

ART is able to produce the work because many in the cast are tapped from the acting school, appropriate for the teen-populated drama/romance/sci-fi story.

“Donnie Darko” is ART’s third alternative-theater project geared specifically for a younger, non-subscription aud.

After “Onion Cellar” earlier this year, the theater last month presented three weekends of “Sxip’s House of Charm,” anchored by a different band each week and featuring a variety show of acts including a Cirque du Soleil perf, a human beatbox, a rope-skipping cowboy from the Bronx and a comic storyteller.

Orchard says while the Boston area boasts a college population of 250,000, he doesn’t believe it’s necessary to be in a college environment to find an aud for these projects. “This kind of material would work anywhere,” he says.