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Theatre department brings ‘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 Darko began, 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.universitytickets.com or by calling 617-373-4700.