This may be the first time that a night of channel-surfing on television inspired a theatrical production. One night, four years ago, Marcus Stern was flipping through the channels and happened upon the film “Donnie Darko.” It was about halfway through, but Stern stayed on, completely enthralled by the convoluted film about an emotional teen and a guy in a demonic bunny suit named “Frank.”
This may be the first time that a night of channel surfing on television inspired a theatrical production.
One night, four years ago, Marcus Stern was flipping through the channels and happened upon the film “Donnie Darko.” It was about halfway through, but Stern stayed on, completely enthralled by the convoluted film about an emotional teen and a guy in a demonic bunny suit named “Frank.”
“At the time, I was looking for a play, a stage event for 18 people, and I thought it would be a great story,” says Stern. “I liked the combination of the mystery, the romance, the humor, and the individual lost soul struggling to find some clarity and purpose.”
Stern staged the adaptation for a 2004 graduate student production at the American Repertory Theatre’s Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. It was a hit, and more dates had to be added to satisfy the demand.
Then, earlier this year, Stern got a call from Gideon Lester, the acting artistic directorat the ART, who asked if Stern would consider doing the show again at the Zero Arrow Theatre.
“Gideon felt this was a show with wide appeal,” says Stern. “It’s also a show that may bring people to the theater who normally wouldn’t come.”
The story that so enraptured Stern concerns Frank telling Donnie that the world is set to end in “28 days, six hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds,” but he refuses to give an explanation as to why.
This revelation sets Donnie on a path, one he doesn’t quite understand but one he’s convinced is absolutely necessary.
The same could be said of Stern and his experience with Darko. After he saw the film, he started to map out a stage version of the film. At the time, he didn’t realize he was trying to adapt one of the most beloved cult movies of recent history. But like Donnie, he was engaged by the story and felt compelled to tell it.
“I’m glad I didn’t know it was cult film,” says Stern. “Maybe it would have been nerve-wracking if I did.”
Perhaps it’s a blessing that “Donnie Darko” was brought to the stage by someone who wasn’t a rabid fan. Someone who hasn’t listened to both director commentaries on the DVD or visited the cryptic website where people can read “The Philosophy of Time Travel,” the book from the movie that offers more clues to the plot.
“I think I’ve seen it, in all, about three times,” admits Stern. “I recently watched the ‘Director’s Cut’ to see what else was there.”
As one might guess, Stern is a director/writer who enjoys taking risks on stage.
“I tend to get bored working on the stage,” admits Stern. “So stories that are difficult to figure out makes the job much more entertaining, engaging and interesting.”That makes “Donnie Darko” the perfect choice for Stern.
He got permission to stage the film from the original writer-director Richard Kelly, through a colleague at Harvard University, where Stern teaches.
“Richard has been so generous with allowing me to do this,” says Stern. “I’m hoping to honor what Richard has written.”
He may face a tough audience. The “Donnie Darko” cult includes those of us who stare wide-eyed every time we watch the film, ready to catch something new. Stern’s version stays pretty faithful to the original script, from the jet engine falling in Donnie’s room to the political discussions the Darko family engaged in during the 1988 election, which was against Bush I and Michael Dukakis.
“My normal tendency is to try to keep things as non-time specific as possible,” explains Stern. “And yet, I’m leaving the Dukakis reference. Though it suggests it’s set in the ‘80s, I feel it’s really a timeless story.”
There are two things from the original film that Stern couldn’t find a way around in the stage version. The first involves character Kitty Farmer and her infatuation with motivational speaker Jim Cunningham. Due to time, her exuberant scenes about the relevance and mastery of Cunningham had to be cut.
The other involves the energy tendrils from the movie, which looked like columns of water coming out of people’s chests.
“It was difficult trying to figure out how to do that well,” says Stern. “So we just cut it. Donnie explains them in a later scene and we felt that was enough.”
Feeling lost? Don’t worry. Stern promises that you don’t have to see the film in order to enjoy the stage show. It’s for anyone who enjoys a good mystery story. And a guy in a large rabbit suit with a demonic-looking mask.“Donnie Darko” Zero Arrow Theatre Cambridge Oct. 27-Nov. 17 $39-$52 617-547-8300