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Bringing ‘Donnie Darko’ to the stage

North­eastern is hosting the first uni­ver­sity production—and just the second ever fully staged production—of Donnie Darko, a fan­tasy drama based on the 2001 cult classic that approached time travel and mental ill­ness from the per­spec­tive of a trou­bled teen.

In addi­tion to the all-​​student cast, the pro­duc­tion fea­tures a daz­zling visual and aural display—a chal­lenging task for a small the­atre but a per­fect fit for director Matthew Gray, whose work blends tech­nology with tra­di­tional approaches to acting and stagecraft.

“It’s a pro­duc­tion that works on lots of levels,” said Gray, an assis­tant pro­fessor of the­atre in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design.

Donnie Darko tells the story of its trou­bled tit­ular char­acter who is tasked with pre­venting the end of the world, which is due to occur in 28 days. He is assisted by a large rabbit, who iden­ti­fies him­self as Frank, and others in his com­mu­nity, including a reclu­sive former sci­ence teacher, Roberta Sparrow, who pub­lished a book on time travel.

The play, which opened Tuesday night in the Curry Stu­dent Center’s Studio The­atre, relies on unique pro­jec­tions, lighting, video ele­ments, and sound design to tell the story, which includes por­tals and worm­holes across time and space. Cast and crew worked together on the tech­nical ele­ments of the play, breaking into teams tasked with tack­ling dif­ferent com­po­nents of the performance.

Before moving into the Studio The­atre, which was hosting a pro­duc­tion of The Seagull while work on Donnie Darkobegan, they used a Ryder Hall class­room as work­shop and lab­o­ra­tory. There they pre­pared effects that use four pro­jec­tors, six live cam­eras, and com­puter work­sta­tions for live editing, audio play­back, and dig­ital processing.

“We have to flood a school, we have to set fire to a house, we have to create a worm­hole that a plane can fly through,” Gray said. “These are big chal­lenges for a small theatre.”

It is appro­priate that North­eastern is hosting a pro­duc­tion of the play, which was staged at the Cam­bridge, Mass.-based Amer­ican Reper­tory The­ater in 2007. The opening lines ref­er­ence Michael Dukakis, who in the play’s 1988 set­ting is run­ning for pres­i­dent and who is now a Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Polit­ical Sci­ence at North­eastern. But that’s not the reason why the play was selected, Gray said. It was picked because it posed unique the­atrical chal­lenges and fea­tured the kind of large cast best suited for a uni­ver­sity production.

“It’s enig­matic without being pre­ten­tious,” said Gray, who noted that the play forces the audi­ence to decide whether its sci­ence fiction-​​like events are real or simply delu­sions of a men­tally ill teenager.

The play runs through March 24 and tickets are avail­able online at neu​.uni​ver​si​tyt​ickets​.com or by calling 617.373.4700.