King Kong Takes Over Fullerton’s Maverick Theater

Chatting with the big guy in King Kong. Photo by Joel Beers

Very big and technically intensive shows are no stranger to the Maverick Theater, from adaptations of the epic sweep of the battle of Gettysburg in The Killer Angels novel to live versions of films such as The Sting, Night of the Living Dead and The Manchurian Candidate.

But how the hell is founder Brian Newell going to pull off the 1933 film King Kong, which includes scenes atop the Empire State Building and a tussle with a Tyrannosaurus rex, not to mention a rather large ape? Here’s how: through the hundreds of hours of work since November by an 11-person production crew on a scenic and technical infrastructure that, combined with 21st-century digital technology, a faithful staging of the novelization of the film’s screenplay, cinematic techniques, and old-school smoke and mirrors, will create an experience akin to “watching a film being made live every night,” Newell says.

Oh, and lots of hope. Hope that his audience will willingly hop aboard a most absurd ride: watching a live version of a film whose first 45 minutes is a fairly conventional adventure story—conventional, meaning the one female is a ditz, but, man, can she scream, and everyone non-white is a half-naked, painted-up savage (we are talking 1933 Hollywood here)—but then erupts into a groundbreaking special-effects extravaganza that, though filmed nearly 90 years ago, still looks and feels so big.

“I want the audience to know that right behind them, on another stage, is an actor performing the character they’re watching on the screen,” which is positioned at the back of the stage, Newell says. “That is part of the entertainment of the night, for the audience to realize the story being told in front of them is actually happening all around them.”

Newell knows his treatment can’t match any film or the current musical version of King Kong (yeah, really), on Broadway, which includes a 20-foot-tall, 2-ton puppet gorilla manipulated by 14 people. Though he’s using digital camcorders, video mixers and laptops, and blending prerecorded and live footage with real actors, Newell and his team have had to improvise, much like the film’s designers. Using techniques still in their embryonic stage, such as stop-motion animation, blue screens and rear projections, these designers ran mostly on inspiration and chutzpah, often figuring out how to do things on the spot, just as the Maverick is doing.

The biggest hurdle, obviously, is conveying the gargantuan size of Mr. Kong. In this show, he’s never physically onstage. Instead, Robert Downs, a longtime Maverick fixture, dons a muscle-padded body suit beneath a human-sized gorilla costume and performs behind a curtain separating the Maverick’s two 48-seat spaces. A camcorder is trained on him, and the feed is mixed with prerecorded images and another live feed of actors performing in front of a second green screen, located just offstage. That allows Newell to composite four separate images at once, which are then projected onto the onstage screen and can be manipulated in ways ranging from blowing up Kong to massive scale relative to the female lead on a skyscraper ledge watching Kong fight off pilots and planes.

Add flourishes such as filmed marionettes fleeing across a massive log; an inflatable T-rex Halloween costume; and a 14-foot-long, fur-covered gorilla arm and hand, and you get a show Newell hopes will entertain and impress the audience, while also including them in the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink joke that they’re in a 3,700-square-foot converted warehouse in Fullerton watching a live adaption of a film about a giant fucking gorilla stampeding through the streets of Manhattan.

Yet Newell says he’s playing it straight. While he considered making a parody, he chose to honor the story and says he worked against the special effects, however large or small, eclipsing it. The character development, the often-stilted 1933 dialogue (“oh, this confounding fog!”), and the dual-track story of a bizarre beauty-and-the-beast-like romance and commentary on mankind’s hard-on for dicking with nature to turn a fast buck are all intact. But after running a theater for 19 years, Newell is savvy enough to realize any theatrical production audacious enough to think it can pull off Kong can’t take itself too seriously.

“Sometimes you do shows that really impact you and the audience, and sometimes you just want to play and have fun and not worry about high art,” he says. “We’re trying to have some fun re-creating these special-effects moments, but by no means are we so serious about it that we think we’ll really be wowing anyone. It’s more the novelty of doing the effects. That becomes the entertainment of doing something like King Kong—and what I think might attract people to come see if we can somehow actually pull it off.”

King Kong at the Maverick Theater, 110 E.Walnut Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-7070; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through March 17. $10-$30.

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