Dan McCabe and Perry Jackson in Donnie Darko
(© Marcus Stern)
Dan McCabe and Perry Jackson in Donnie Darko
(© Marcus Stern)
A.R.T. Associate Director Marcus Stern first came across the cult film Donnie Darko, the same way many of us have -- by flipping through TV channels. Now, Stern and A.R.T. are presenting his adaptation of Donnie Darko at the Cambridge-based company's Zero Arrow Theatre.

"Hopefully, we'll bring in those who love the movie, those who regularly attend American Repertory Theatre, and another mix of a younger crowd," he says. "Donnie is a pretty universal figure, someone traversing through struggles and confusion and wanting to find purpose in life. Almost every person in the play is really struggling, so I think we can relate to almost all the characters in some way. They're all restless and unhappy. There's something really nice about watching all these people collide in this world."

In 2004, Stern decided to adapt Richard Kelly's film, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal in the title role, as a project for grad students that he was working with. "I literally took a DVD and stopped and started it a million times and just transcribed it on a laptop. I think the screenplay came out a month or two after I'd done that, and I was like, 'Ooh... that would have been helpful.'"

In the world of Donnie Darko, nothing is quite as it seems: a six-foot-tall rabbit named Frank regularly lures Donnie into mischievous deeds; a plane randomly falls from the sky; and time travel is possible. "We're trying to do as many visual stage looks that we can to reinforce the power and the mystery of Frank or explain the plane crash, or the magic Other World that's happening," says Stern. Still, it's unclear how everything is connected until the very end, which is fine by Stern. "The ambiguity is important. Richard wrote such an incredibly engaging and moving script. I really like the notion that there may be this larger order. Somehow there's a connecting element to all of this madness and chaos."

-- M.M.

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Michaela Cronan and Scott Borish
in End Days
(© Sigvision Photography)
Michaela Cronan and Scott Borish
in End Days
(© Sigvision Photography)
Jesus Christ, Stephen Hawking, a 16-year-old boy that dresses like Elvis, and the coming of the Apocalypse -- these are some of the primary ingredients for Deborah Zoe Laufer's End Days, now receiving its world premiere from Florida Stage.

The play revolves around a family in crisis. The father, Arthur, survived the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and has subsequently fallen into a profound depression. His wife, Sylvia, has found Jesus -- who has moved in with them. And their daughter, Rachel, is obsessed by science, dreams of Stephen Hawking, and is being pursued by their new Elvis impersonating neighbor. Things reach another crisis point after Sylvia interprets something that Jesus tells her to mean that the Rapture is coming on Wednesday. "The whole second act, they're waiting for Jesus to come for them, and Sylvia is determined to convert her family by midnight," says Laufer.

"They're all really just looking for answers for what life means after a major crisis," says Laufer of her characters. "A lot of people turn towards faith. I heard on NPR that 40 percent of the country self-identifies as evangelical. I'm passionate about science, which gives me the same kind of hope that faith gives some people."

The playwright describes the work as a very very dark comedy. "The issues I'm dealing with are really serious," she says. "These are not wacky people. They're very grounded and have huge problems. I'm not a pie-in-the-face kind of comedy writer. I like recognizing myself in people who are struggling. I think life is funny, and the realer it is, the funnier it will be."

-- D.B.

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Ian Riley, Holly Chou, and Tore Ingersoll-Thorp
in Use Both Hands
(© Kirsten Goldberg)
Ian Riley, Holly Chou, and Tore Ingersoll-Thorp
in Use Both Hands
(© Kirsten Goldberg)
"When I was younger, I always had this notion that I could turn my life around in one day," says writer/director John Rosenberg. In his play Use Both Hands -- currently being presented by Sleepwalkers Theatre in San Francisco -- that's just what his lead characters, Marie and Seymour, are trying to do. They've come to Reno to gamble, but there's more than just money at stake.

Marie, who plans to spend all her savings and then commit suicide, was inspired by a friend of Rosenberg. "When she was young, she was married to an emotionally abusive man," he relates. "It reached a point where she didn't know what to do, and as a cry for help she told him, 'I'm gonna cash out my savings and let's go to Atlantic City, have a nice time, and then I'm going to go home and kill myself.' And he said, 'Okay, that sounds great.'" She didn't follow through on her plan, but the idea of it stayed with Rosenberg.

Seymour, an aimless college student, is modeled after Rosenberg himself. However, he makes sure to mention that he did not steal money from his bank deposit job and hit the casinos like the character in his play does. "Both characters are really gambling for their sense of self-worth," he says.

The phrase "use both hands" is something Rosenberg's father used to tell him when he was younger as a reminder to slow down and be clear about what he wanted to do. "When I was a kid, I would have a cup of soda in my hand, and a remote control, and a G.I. Joe, and a book, and then I would try to do something else," he states. "The play is about two people that need to slow down a little bit. Chances are if you're using both hands, you're a little more under control."

-- D.B.