Maverick fans will go ape over ‘King Kong’
By Eric Marchese
When it comes to the biggest Hollywood stars of all time, you can’t get much bigger than King Kong.
The gargantuan ape is, of course, not a conventional silver screen idol – but when he made his debut appearance in the 1933 RKO Pictures adventure classic, he quickly became a huge box office draw.
So, how do you scale the big guy down to size to tell his story through the medium of theater?
Brian Newell has for decades realized his concept of “staged cinema” through his Maverick Theater, the Fullerton company he co-founded with Jim Book in 2002.
During the company’s first few years, Newell devised ways to translate movies like “Night of the Living Dead” and “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” to the Maverick stage. Even more ambitious was the 2006 production “Giant Green Lizard,” a musical spoof of Godzilla movies wherein Newell brought the towering, rampaging lizard to life using a combination of video, rear projection, miniatures and mechanical models.
A few years later, he added a new show to its growing list of “staged cinema” productions: a campy version of Ed Wood’s laughably bad sci-fi opus, “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” To get the effects just right, Newell began combining computer technology with live, closed-circuit video feeds.
By 2019, Newell deemed it high time for King Kong to take his place among Maverick’s storied, previous staged cinema shows.
The classic beauty-and-the-beast story was a hit, so the show was reprised last year and is now back for the third time.
Newell notes the most crucial technical factor is the combining of visual elements from separate sources into a single image. He said the term for this process is “compositing” and that “it’s often used to create the illusion that all of those multiple elements are part of the same scene.”
The technique isn’t new; in fact, one of the people who pioneered the technology behind it was Willis O’Brien, the special effects guru who made “King Kong” possible nearly 90 years ago.
Newell said another primary technical method is the use of green screen rear-projection technology, which he’s combining with a live video feed. The technique, long employed by Hollywood filmmakers, grafts background images with shots of principal actors.
So, how is the big guy himself being realized on Maverick’s stage? The original film perfected the animation technique known as stop-motion: Miniature models are moved a fraction, with each new pose photographed a frame at a time; running the images in succession creates the illusion of motion.
For live performance, Newell uses yet another technique: As an actor wearing a King Kong costume goes through his character’s paces out of sight of the audience, his image is projected onto a screen positioned upstage, behind live on-stage actors.
The actor costumed as Kong also cavorts among sets that are miniaturized versions of the uppermost floors of the Empire State Building, the enormous gate on Skull Island that King Kong crashes through, and the film’s other memorable locales.
Newell’s longtime Maverick costume designer Celestina Hudson crafted an ape suit so actor Rob Downs could portray Kong and replicated the iconic costumes worn by Fay Wray (the movie’s Ann Darrow) and the movie actors playing the Skull Island natives.
Newell designed and built a giant mechanical hand and arm that allows the Kong character to interact “with the normal-sized characters” – and for the unforgettable moment when Kong curls his palm and fingers around Ann and lifts her off the ground.
As in 2019, Newell has assembled more than a dozen designers of various disciplines, including costume design, set design and video projection, into a team he calls Maverick Light and Magic (after George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic).
Although Newell is officially credited as the adaptor and director of the show, his duties and activities extend far beyond those two tasks, including designing the sets and overseeing the bringing together of a variety of visual and special effects techniques. In fact, he’s a bonafide quadruple threat – producer, director, writer and designer.
The near-dizzying level of creativity and technology has made “King Kong” one of the most ambitious movie-to-stage endeavors the Fullerton storefront has yet created. Newell said ths show is “absolutely” the pinnacle of Maverick’s abilities to merge multiple techniques and technologies.
“In terms of computer and video work, it’s absolutely beyond anything else we’ve ever done on our stage.”
As director, Newell has tapped six actors who can rightfully be called “King Kong” veterans. Returning from the first two years are Paul Zelhart (as Carl Denham), Kalinda Gray (Ann Darrow), Glenn Freeze (Captain Englehorn), Scott Keister (Weston and the Native King), Donny Van Horn (Jimmy and Mabel) and Joe Sanders (Lumpy).
Mackenzie Greiner supplants Gray as Ann for select performances this year; Jeff Lowe plays Jack Driscoll, the role he shared with Jason Evans last year and that was filled by Jake Kilroy in 2019; Francis Gacad is the Witch Doctor, replacing John Castro from the first two years; and as “The Eighth Wonder,” Miles Faber replaces Rob Downs, who played Kong in the first two productions.
While “King Kong” has a lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek feel, Newell emphasized that this version isn’t a parody or spoof.
“The characters are honest and real, just as in the film, and we’re trying to evoke a sense of wonder and excitement for everyone who sees our show.”
Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects over more than 38 years as a freelance and staff journalist for a wide variety of publications, but is best known as a critic, feature writer and news reporter covering theater and the arts throughout Orange County and beyond.
Location: Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Ave., Fullerton
Run dates/curtain times: August 12-Sept. 3. 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 6 p.m. Sundays
Suitability: Ages six and up
Information: 714-526-7070, mavericktheater.com