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Theatre Review (LA): The Exorcist by John Pielmeier at The Geffen

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The Exorcist was first a novel by William Peter Blatty based on some strange goings-on in Cottage City, Maryland where a Jesuit priest performed an exorcism on a young boy. Blatty published his novel in 1971 and it was made into a movie in 1973, a movie that was named “the scariest movie of all time” in several polls and was chosen to be preserved as part of the National Film Registry. Now playwright John Pielmeier (Agnes of God) with the help of famed theatre director John Doyle has brought this story of struggle between good and evil and faith versus fact to the Geffen Stage in Westwood.

Because of the subject matter and the story’s successful past, the project has been highly anticipated on both coasts. The stellar cast includes Brooke Shields, Harry Groener, David Wilson Barnes, Stephen Bogardus, Manoel Felciano, Tom Nelis, Roslyn Ruff, Richard Chamberlain, and Emily Yetter. The scenic and costume design is by Scott Peck, lighting by Jane Cox, evocative music by Sir John Tavener, with special effects by Teller (of Penn and Teller). The overall design is very effective and the set looks like the inside of a chancellery of a church. The acting is for the most part quite effective. I particularly liked Brooke Shields for her honesty and Harry Groener for his theatricality. I also admired the sheer athleticism of Emily Yetter as Regan.

Richard Chamberlain has a magnificent voice but he is not used very well. The powers that be decided to use him as a sort of narrator. The trouble is, the story should be lived not narrated. Also by having him narrate, you undermine the suspense of his fate, which is one of the plot’s dramatic devices.

There is still enough to appreciate in the production and I believe it is fixable with adjustments to Chamberlain’s character. Perhaps if they used the character of Carla, the Rwanda genocide survivor, to narrate, it might be even more suspenseful. She should be the first to recognize what is wrong with Regan.

The Exorcist will play at The Geffen Playhouse until August 12.

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