What’s the character of the demon like in John Pielmeier’s “The Exorcist,” adapted from William Peter Blatty’s novel, opening July 11 at the Geffen Playhouse? “He’s actually rather inventive and playful, in the sense that he likes to play with people’s lives,” said Richard Chamberlain, who portrays the chief exorcist, Father Merrin. “He likes to frustrate, to oppress, to degrade. He’s everything negative; everything that leads to despair and self-disgust and in its worst form, suicide. There’s a certain dark pleasure he has in harnessing or in some sense having that power over people.”
“He’s both brilliant and a bully,” said Brooke Shields, who plays Chris, the mother of the possessed girl. “There’s that meanness you see in children on the playground, or kicking the guy when he’s down. He’s a terrorist, as we say in the play. He wants despair, because that’s his triumph.”
The beast will be portrayed not as a booming voice emerging from the girl, but by four cast members who don priests’ vestments and speak as a kind of Greek chorus. Teller, of the magic duo Penn & Teller, will provide the illusions conjuring the demon’s tricks, though he’s staying mum about details of his hand – or sleight of hand – in the production. (It’s perhaps safe to say that a levitation scene during the exorcism is on his agenda).
Teller will say that director John Doyle (“Sweeney Todd”) is using church imagery to enhance the sense of the demonic: “What he realized early on is that if you try to do photographic representations of supernatural events onstage, the audience is essentially going to start regarding everything as a magic show, and they’re going to be sitting there thinking, ‘OK, what’s the next trick and how did they do that,’” Teller said. “So what Doyle did was to take some very disturbing images from a sort of Anglican-looking church and every place where there’s a supernatural event, it’s represented through some element of church ritual. Even with something as simple as someone taking off his coat, the coat is suddenly treated like one of the sacred objects in a church service. And as you’re watching you’re enhancing every little bit of this creepy story in your mind by staring at a ritual that can be very creepy in itself.
“The clever thing that Doyle realized is that the church setting can be full of chilling images,” added Teller, who is an atheist. “There are all these rituals going on with often very seductively beautiful music, but overseeing all of this is a man being executed hanging on a cross, bleeding.”
For Shields, who was raised Catholic, acting opposite a demonic character has at times proved exhausting – especially during scenes in which she must convey the fraught emotions of a mother watching her child suffer. “As much as Chris calls herself a non-believer, she’s the one who insists that that thing inside Regan is not her daughter,” Shields said. “Her attitude is, ‘You may not believe it, but I’m telling you it is so, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get rid of it.’”
Rehearsing in a dark room in the claustrophobic milieu of “The Exorcist” “has been harder than I ever imagined, because it’s a place we all strive to avoid,” Shields added. “So it’s hard every day but there’s also such a lyricism in the way that John directs; the whole thing is so beautifully choreographed. And he also knows that his actors are capable, so it’s not like during rehearsal I have to go to [that extreme emotional place] for eight hours a day. We know it’s accessible, and then it becomes ‘Let’s get the logistics down.’”
Chamberlain, as Father Merrin, is charged with some of the most intense dialogue when, during the exorcism sequences, he shouts ‘I cast you out, unclean spirit!” “It’s extremely intense and exhausting, but in a good way,” Chamberlain said of rehearsals. “I have a feeling that that scene in the exorcism is going to be very traumatic and we’ll in a sense feel the presence of the demonic in our imagination—and that the stakes are very high.”
So will the play be frightening? “It’s so creepy,” Shields said. “I’ve got to be honest, just being in that rehearsal room is eerie…But it’s the kind of eerie that you get telling stories around the campfire. We don’t need the head spinning and the vomit [seen in the 1973 film version], because we’re just telling a story, and it’s a story that’s been told since the dawn of time.”
“The Exorcist” opens July 11 and runs through Aug. 12 at the Geffen Playhouse. For tickets and information, call 310-208-5454 or visit www.geffenplayhouse.com.