Saw Santa Claus Conquers the Martians at the Maverick Theater in Fullerton. It's good, which is surprising, because it's based on the 1964 movie, which is crap. And not the so-bad-it's-good kind of Plan 9 From Outer Space crap. No, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, the movie, is the kind of crap that ceases being funny about 15 minutes into the production and then quickly becomes tedious, then soul crushing, ultimately robbing the viewer of even the simplest pleasure of watching an old movie, which is trying to figure out if all the actors in a particular scene are presently dead.
Why would Maverick founder/co-owner Brian Newell choose to stage a movie that bad? He explains that using movies as source material is a good way to attract audiences by providing a comfortable familiarity for skittish, new-to-the-theater types.
"People won't go to the theater for Ibsen," Newell says. "They don't know who the hell Ibsen is."
But they might come to see It's a Wonderful Life, which the Maverick staged for Christmas a couple years ago, or Night of the Living Dead (very good crap), which the theater did around Halloween.
Yet it's still a leap from staging those movies, which are not only good in their own right but have a built-in fan base, to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,which is rarely seen because it so epically sucks.
Newell and co-writers Nick McGee and Jay Lewis deal with this dilemma by fully embracing the crap. They get elbow deep in the stuff—none more than McGee, who volunteered for the execrable task of transcribing every word of dialogue from the movie so the writers would have a template to work from. That required McGee to watch Santa Claus Conquers virtually uninterrupted for nine days, the theatrical equivalent of a suicide mission except that instead of risking death, McGee had to watch a really bad movie for nine days. Still . . .
"When we looked at it, we decided that the play would basically have two acts," Newell said. "Everything until Santa gets to Mars is taken directly from the movie. We didn't change a thing."
The movie's plot is simple: Martians decide to kidnap Santa and bring him to their planet so he might bestow joy upon Martian children, who have grown up too quickly because of Mars' dependence on technology. Whatever, it works, in large part because of three veterans of community theater—McGee, who plays the lead Martian, named Kimar; Lewis, who plays Santa; and Nathan Makaryk, who plays the evil Martian Voldar. McGee and Makaryk are part of the Maverick's improv group and excel at finding little moments in the script to punch up or act out. Match that with a set that looks like it was purchased at the 99 Cents Only store—with change—and a mood is created. Ironing boards are used as flying saucer control panels, husks of exercise bikes are employed as the ship's bridge, and the saucer's very flight is represented by darkening all lights and having Makaryk twirl what appears to be a hubcap with lights on it attached to a pole over the heads of audience members who are both thrilled and left wondering if the production also skimped on quality string?
"I did the set myself," says Newell, "and right from the start I knew it had to be ridiculous. I thought using household items would really accomplish that.
"I wanted everything stripped down. For instance, we originally used foil on the exercise bike, but I thought that even that was too much. Finally, we just stripped it, and everything else, and just spray painted everything silver, because back in the '50s that's what technology on Mars was—silver spray paint."
With such extremely low-tech effects, things are bound to go wrong, which is exactly what Newell and his cohorts wanted. At the Sunday matinee I witnessed, actors jumped on glitches in the production like ravenous dogs, and those moments quickly became what the audience rooted for; the play had, in effect, converted the observers to root for crap—you know, like American democracy.
The movie script is totally abandoned during the second act, the play becoming increasingly ridiculous and funny, laughs building on laughs, running jokes running on until, finally, everyone dances. The only problem for Newell was that, as the comic possibilities became more obvious to actors during rehearsal, the play bloated to Wagnerian lengths.
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"We'd have these marathon, 4-and- a-half hour sessions, which was good for exploring the possibilities, but as we got closer to opening we had to start cutting back," Newell said. "[The actors] were great about it. I'd tell them that it was funny, but we weren't telling the story anymore. They understood why I was cutting certain things. No one said 'Why are you killing my funny?!'"
Oh, but the funny lives in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Word of mouth has quickly turned the show into a success, and several sellouts have Newell thinking that he has found the Maverick's annual holiday offering. It's an amazing turnaround considering that a couple months ago, after a few years of lackluster holiday productions, Newell was thinking of simply ignoring the holiday—"boycotting Christmas" as he put it. (Boycotting Christmas, starring Valerie Bertinelli, Ed Asner and members of SEIU Local 660 airs Saturday on the ABC Family Channel.)
But then everything was saved by a really bad movie. A Christmas miracle! Just like the angels told the shepherds: "Hey, crap happens."
SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS, AT THE MAVERICK THEATER, 110 E. WALNUT AVE., FULLERTON, (714) 526-7070; www.mavericktheater.com. THURS.-SAT., DEC. 21-23, 8 P.M.; SUn., 3 p.m. THROUGH DEC. 30. $8-$16.