Saturday, September 24, 2022

Alien: The High School Play (2019).

 Please see the following video for all the relevant background material.

 Further elaboration and trivia, courtesy of Adam Savage, can be found in the video below:

And now, our feature presentation.

The Main Event.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome, Ms. Sigourney Weaver.

 Conclusion: An Achievement in More Ways Than One.

In some ways, there's very little to talk about here.  What we've got on our hands is simple on paper.  A group of school students decided to see if it was possible to try and adapt one of the most famous and influential Sci-Fi Horror films of all time to the local school venue.  When you stop and think it over, it's one of those ideas that shouldn't work.  What it puts me in mind of right away is an old, late New Wave film called Fitzcarraldo.  It involves this near-impossible attempt to lug an entire Amazonian steamship up the literal slopes of a mountain.  Because, reasons.  If that sounds like a profoundly dumb challenge, that's because it really is at its core.  Apparently, that wasn't enough to stop a director like Werner Herzog from somehow managing to accomplish such a feat in the name of art.  The students of North Bergen High School were never faced with the same type of impossible odds as the one Herzog tackled.  Yet the challenge was very much a difficult one all the same.  It can all be expressed in a question.  How do you recreate some of the most iconic sets, costumes, and props in film history?

The most logical answer is that you don't.  Period, end of story.  At least there's no way it's the sort of thing you try to do without a lot of risk and struggle involved.  It's not the same as trying to pull an entire big freakin boat uphill.  Yet it is comparable to scaling a mountain.  The hill in this case is the original Ridley Scott film.  It's one of those properties that casts a shadow so large that most of us would probably be surprised to the extent that we've all been living in the shade cast by it ever since.  In other words, a project like this is not going to be the sort of thing you can just toss off as a lark.  Or if it does start out as a joke, then it's the kind where the punchline is always aimed right, square back at you the jester.  In further words, something like this can't just crop up over night, and then get built in it a day.  In addition to the usual sweat, tears, and blood, trying to bring an idea like this life on the small stage seems to require that baffling level of commitment that always walks the tightrope between daring audacity, and some vague form of clueless insanity.  Let's give a sense of scale, for comparison.

For instance, graphic artist legend H.R. Giger took the greater part of a year in which to build the, Face-Hugger, Xenomorph and the Derelict Ship, complete with Space Jockey.  The only reason he got any of it done was because of a number of factors.  The first was that he had a team of twenty professional technicians, builders, and craftsmen to help bring his visions of surrealistic horror to life.  The second, and perhaps the most important, in retrospect, is that he had a sympathetic ear with Scott as the film's director.  It allowed Giger to continue pushing the envelope as filming progressed.  The result is a by now well familiar series of iconic, dramatic moments, and one of the most well remembered set and character designs in the history of fantastic cinema.  It's telling that, looking back on his career, Giger stated that working with Scott was just about the only positive experience he would ever get on to have when working with Hollywood.  The rest was a series of headaches he would've preferred to have avoided.  The students of North Bergen Junior High, and their teachers were under less of a hassle.  Though the obstacles they faced in bringing the story to the stage remained a challenge nonetheless.

That just leaves the play itself, and whether it can tell us anything about a familiar story that we didn't know before.  Because the story of Alien itself is so well known, this review is going to take a slight detour from the usual approach.  To start with, the original 1979 movie is not, in the strictest sense, the topic of this article.  Instead, since the focus is centered around an adaptation of a film (strange as that may sound) it just makes sense to me to let the rest of this essay play out as a series of random, yet related notes on the themes and ideas that the Bergen Play raises in the mind of the critic.  Another good reason for this should be obvious.  These days everyone and their grandmother knows about Scott's film, it's plot beats, and the behind-the-scenes trivia.  All of it deserves an article of its own, in time.  Right now, however, it's best to focus in on the efforts on the Bergen High alumni, and try to appreciate their team effort in creating a genuine achievement that I don't think anyone expected.

- I first heard about this whole project by an accident of the purest kind.  I was doing something else, and so there it was, dropped off as a mention in passing.  I was going through a fan site known as TV Tropes, for whatever that's worth.  I was browsing through one of their pages on the original, 79, Scott film.  So far, everything had been dull and normal.  So then I scroll down and wind up reading this:

"On the 25th of March 2019, the North Bergen High School drama club of New Jersey staged Alien The Play, a stage-play adaptation of Alien, with a total cast and crew of 16 students and 3 teachers working off a budget of $3500. The teachers and students admitted to have cobbled the sets and space-suits out of "essentially trash" (with the Alien itself made out of a clearance-shop skeleton dolled up with machine parts, not unlike the original Alien). The stage-play became a viral sensation on Twitter and social media, even going as far as earning the approval and respect of Sigourney Weaver and Ridley Scott themselves. The latter even offered to fund future matinees, such was the demand for an encore performance (web)".  It sounds like the kind of thing you think you've just imagined.  And then you click on the links provided, and discover that old saw about the truth being stranger than any fiction.

Suffice it to say, the realization that someone had put on an actual play of a Sci-Horror classic still strikes me as something odd.  Like there was this unscalable height, or Parnassus, that I didn't even know was there in the first place.  So what did I think of all this?  Well, let's just continue on...

- One of the first things that strikes you about the play is its setting, or rather its venue.  Scott's film has to be, if not the first time a movie has ever taken the audience to another world, then at least it was the first one to give us a secondary world which can really fit the definition of having stumbled across a setting that thoroughly counts as an almost textbook example of the alien other.  Credit here, of course, has to go to Hans Rudy Giger and his team for giving us a series of visual images that almost have to be described as Eldritch, or Lovecraftian in their design, purpose, and overall impact.  The very fact that this time it all takes place in an ordinary local community theater is bound to leave the average viewer, or reader, asking themselves just one question.  "How in the hell does any of them expect to pull the same feat that Giger and Scott did all those years ago"?  The most logical answer remains the same.

There's just no way you can get away with that level of artistic daring without the budget and commitment needed to back it all up, much less get the whole production off the ground.  It's not all that surprising if many went into the theater that night thinking it couldn't be done.  So how does Giger's haunted house in space setting fare at the hands of the local high school theatrical club?  Well, the first part of the answer is to say that it is interesting in more ways than one.  Am I willing to defend it?  Yes, I am.  Is there any good reason for it?  I think there is.  What's interesting about this whole play for me is the achievement no one seems to have noticed, or bothered to talk about all that much.  It's this unremarked upon aspect of the play that makes it so much of a winner in my eyes.  In order to gain a proper understanding of it, however, its best to take in the story itself, and how it plays out on stage.

- The narrative of the play itself is nothing new.  The program follows the plot of Dan O'Bannon and Ron Shusset's original movie script pretty much to the letter.  There might be one or two added bits, here and there, yet none of them really alters either the plot itself, or the characters, their motivations, or any of the major story beats or actions taken.  If this were an actual movie, then I'd have to call it a virtual shot for shot remake.  The curious part is this has got to be one of the few times a critic has ever been able to use that phrase in an actual positive light.  I'm just as weirded out by that as you are, trust me.  The funny thing is that the playwrights seem to have made what has to be called "a lot of the right choices" when it comes to winning the crowd over.  It starts, for instance, in a fitting space of total blackness.  Not a sound, anywhere.  Then the first thing you here is a familiar ghost from the past.  Right away, the sound track kicks in, and the vast majority of us have heard it all before.  It's the same opening music that plays over the title credits of Scott's movie.  Complete with opening title sequence.

- As the credits play, we come across one of the few, though minor changes in the presentation.  The good news is that none of it effects the story proper.  Instead, all that's happened is that a lot of the original film's production crew has been changed to reflect the names of the current group responsible for bringing the play to life, both on and backstage.  It's a minor, and in this case necessary enough detail.  I don't know, there's just something surreal and charming about seeing Richard Greenberg's opening title sequence displaying the names of a bunch till now relatively unknown drama students.  

While Jerry Goldsmith's haunting and iconic score plays out on a projector screen hanging over the main set.  That situation has changed pretty fast, though, for the record.  So there's one (if not the only thing) the cast and crew can be proud of.  There's also a nice added bonus here that you're not going to get with the original   Since the auditorium is full of the parent, friends, and alumni of the North Bergen Players, it's no real surprise to find the audience bursting into wild applause every time the name of a friend or loved one pops up on the projector screen.  This applies just as much to those who worked behind the curtains, as much as those who perform in front of it.  Perhaps that all sounds like nothing major.  Whether it is or not, though, there's just something infectious about watching an Alien project get off the ground to that level of applause.  It just helps you to get geared up for the story that follows.

- One of the further things that's interesting to note about the play's use of the original film's opening title crawl is that they give all the right credit where its due.  They make sure that everyone knows their project is "Based on the film by Ridley Scott".  A few seconds later, Jerry Goldsmith is acknowledged for the score, followed by two of North Bergen's alumnus, who are responsible for editing Goldsmith's musical cues for the stage productions requirements.  The most fascinating part comes near the end of the adapted credits sequence, where we're shown the following: "Screenplay by Dan O'Bannon.  Story by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shussett.  Adapted by Perfecto Cuervo".  It's a moment that's fascinating, and also kind of bittersweet in retrospect.  I don't want to sound too "out of proportion", or anything.  It's just that seeing that moment happen, and knowing its all a part of real life (somehow) just puts me in mind of the kind of performances they used to have at Shakespeare's old Globe Theater, where sometimes the action of the plays could extend out into and among the the groundlings.

This is how the high school's use of Greenberg's opening shot comes across to me.  It also made me realize one other thing.  Dan O'Bannon passed on way back in 2009.  He might not sound like a household name.  However, in addition to the script for Alien, he's also responsible for directing a film like Return of the Living Dead, had the opportunity to work on the original, 77 Star Wars, and collaborated with Ivan Reitman on Heavy Metal (1982).  He also wrote the script for fun, underappreciated, latter-day B Pictures such as Invaders From Mars (1986).  While also penning a quiet little blockbuster with the unassuming title of Total Recall (1990).  It was a rich and storied career, and yet while he's managed to hang on to this sort of cult reputation, I've never gotten the sense that O'Bannon ever got as much respect or credit as he probably deserved.  That's why I just realized its a shame he couldn't still be around, in order to attend the live performance of his own script.  It could have been, and probably still is, the best and greatest possible tribute he could ever have gotten.

- There really isn't much to talk about in terms of any real narrative changes.  In fact, one of the wisest choices that the Bergen School Drama Club makes is to realize that there's no need to reinvent this particular wheel.  It's a commonsense observation with a greater deal of traction among the fandom than actual Hollywood studios these days, it seems.  Instead, all that the students in this adaptation need is a few moments of business that will help buy them the time needed to set up the next bit of stage setting as the story requires.  The requirement leads to a few minor bits of business here and there, in order to make sure the stage isn't full what live TV broadcasters refer to as "dead air".  This has been standard practice in the theater dating all the way back to the ages of Shakespeare, where the action of Romeo and Juliet, for instance, would sometimes need the services of a few moments of comic relief.

Believe it or not, the Bergen Drama Club seems to have resorted to this same Elizabethan strategy in helping them pull off their magic trick.  What's kind of amusing about the way they do it is that it the Club decided that the best way to both buy time, and add a bit of humor into the proceedings was to tinker with the characters of Parker and Brett.  Here's what I mean.  What do you think of if you ever stop to give either of these two characters from the film a second thought?  For me, what I always recall is just how enthusiastic Yaphet Kotto was when it came to playing the role of Parker.  In fact, Ridley Scott once said that Kotto was always coming up to him with suggestions for how certain scenes could play out.  It got to the point where as his final turn as a Xenomorph victim arrived as scheduled, Kotto went up to Scott and declared: "I'm not dying today.  I'm killing this motherfucker with my bare hands".

That brazen statement right there is the bit of trivia I always flash back to when it comes to trying to get any correct read on Brett and Parker.  Because let's face it, it is entirely possible to imagine an alternate version of the finished film in which that very scenario played out well enough to the point where the movie's two memorable engineers go on to become badass heroes in their own rights.  It doesn't hurt that they are played by Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton, two very well remembered icons of action cinema.  Indeed, with their shared credentials between the two of them, it is just plausible to imagine a scenario in which the difference is split three ways between Ripley and her two colleagues evenly.  First she gets her own movie, and then both of the two Nostromo's lower deck working stiffs goes on to have a film devoted to their own adventures, in which each of them separately goes around facing off against Xenomorphs across the galaxy.  Let's put it one other way.  If you stop and think about it, it is more than easy to imagine Parker as one of the franchise's Colonial Marines.  Hell, it's easy to spin an idea in which Parker and Hudson join forces to incinerate the face-huggers directly  to kingdom come, while wise-cracking and ass-kicking all the way to certified, box-office gold.  The idea just writes itself.

Anyway, the point is to let all of the above stand as a good idea of what kind of story potential a character like the Brett and Parker from the film might have.  I'm not saying this makes the way both of them are handled in the play a bad thing.  In fact, there's nothing about the high school version of Kotto and Stanton's characters that couldn't be easily be incorporated into any of the scenarios outlined in the last paragraph.  I'm just wondering how either of the two actors would react to the way the Bergen Players utilize their respective characters?  Like, nothing about it bother me, personally.  At the same time, I can also see how it might leave the two film legends kinda-sorta miffed.  Just a bit, anyway.

What's happened is the Jersey team has enlisted Parker and Brett as a the comic relief for the evening.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in the scene where Ripley goes to confront the two of them, and all three get themselves into a minor gripe match.  It's from the movie, and it serves as a good on-stage "intermission" between set ups from one scene to the next.  The difference is the original film uses this exchange between the three cast members to establish what is in retrospect a clever bit of character development.  Scott uses a bit of tension between the crew to show his audience the first hints that Ripley does have it in her to take charge of a difficult situation, even under extreme pressure.  This comes off from her interactions between Brett and Parker.  They try to intimidate her into letting them have their way with things, and she bluntly shows them both that she's having none of it, bringing them to an ironic form of standstill in which neither side backs off, while also acknowledging a grudging sort of respect for one another.  Still doesn't keep Parker from using the ventilation system to mess with her, though.  It's one of those moments of storytelling craft that is so clever you can miss it, if not careful.

Now, to be fair, this scene is also kept intact in the High School version.  The difference is that the addition of comic relief sort of changes the tone a bit.  It starts out with the same dialogue featuring Parker and Brett hassling Ripley about the bonus and pay situation, and her keeping calm while having to deal with a crap situation.  The difference is that while the two ship's engineers where clearly having a bit of fun with her in the movie, it was always just a mask for more serious "have and have not" concerns.  In the play, they come off more as a pair of goofballs who are out to create a bit of mischief in a random fit of boredom.  This is made clear the moment the two of them whip out a boombox, and pretty soon an MC Hammer style rap song is blasting from the auditorium's sound system, and the actors taking over Kotto and Stanton's parts have broken out into what can only be described as a pre-fatherhood style Dad Joke dance.  The nature of the contrast between these two approaches is best realized if you imagine what would happen if the Parker and Brett from the movie ever met their stage counterparts aboard the cinematic Nostromo.  The minute the stage players brought out the boombox, and started dancing to it, Stanton's Brett would probably use that moment to reach down, and in a single, fluid movement, would casually haul the Box over to the ship's fuel tank, open it somehow, and then toss the still playing radio inside, all without missing a beat, leaving the stage versions stunned.

Stanton would then complete the character note by walking back up to his theater doppelgangers, light up a match for a smoke, and then say something like the following.  "Well, tell you what.  Thanks a bushel there, neighbor.  I think y'all just found the perfect solution to our fuel problems.  Got anything else that might help"?  Stanton would then blow a waft of cigarette smoke at the 2019 versions, letting them know that they're walking on thin ice, and if they don't start to wise up, they could be asking for trouble.  Let that stand as a decent enough allegory for the narrative gulf that separates the film and stage iterations of these characters.  The real odd thing is how none of this amounts to anything like an actual deal breaker for me.  It's not even something you notice as the play is going on.  It isn't until after the final curtain call, and maybe later on, as you're raiding the fridge that you might stop to realize just how different two of the most memorable characters from the Scott joint are from the last time you might have seen them.  Even then, the difference is more apt to get a chuckle, rather any kind of groan.  

- In the same vein, as the creative choices made above, there's one extra filler "intermission" sequence before the big chest-burster scene.  This involves Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song, suddenly blaring out of the soundtrack, followed by the actor playing Dallas strolling in and playing on an electric guitar.  The moment is apparently supposed to show what the captain gets up to when nothing is really happening, and everything seems kind of stuck in limbo.  It's also the play's final bit of comic relief, even including the actor doing a make-shift rock concert style slide across the stage, as he wails away on the axe.  It's an amusing moment, and I can't say I mind it.  At the same time, I was left wondering whether or not a character like Dallas would actually do something like that?  It's no real criticism on my part.  Just wondering out loud.  In the film, the late, great Tom Skerritt is is revealed to have tucked himself away in a corner of the bridge, and he's all alone.  The implication there is that it's a spot that he goes to whenever he wants to get away from the rest of the crew.  The scene further implies this is something he and everybody tends to wind up doing whenever they're not asleep.  It give the viewer a sense that there's no real close-knit family dynamic aboard the Nostromo.  Everybody would rather be somewhere else instead of cooped up in space.  It gives the film this idea of enforced loneliness.

It's also this note of trapped isolation that gives the story its palpable sense of atmospheric dread.  Now I'm not saying this takes me out of the experience or anything.  None of that ever happens.  It's just that as I was watching that single moment of fun unfold, it occurred to me that it would make more sense if you had the Dallas actor placed slumped over in the brig console, looking bored and kind of sad.  It would have made a nice, discordant counterpoint to the upbeat quality of the song.  On occasion, you could have the actor start up, and look about, as if he's heard something crawling around in the shadows.  At least that's the better direction I would have argued for leading up to big entrance.

- A lot of the credit here has to go to the two main forces behind this play's existence.  Their names are Perfecto Quervo and Steven Defendini.  Between the two of them, they seemed to have found a way to successfully realize one of the perennial American nightmares for the communal stage setting.  They seemed to have found that extra mile of crazy effort and dedication required to even try and attempt a feat like this, much less making a successful effort to get it all off the ground, and on to an actual, working stage.  The responsibility of bringing O'Bannon's words, and Scott and Giger's images down off the screen and into the audience seems to have been exchanged back and forth evenly between the two of them from what I can tell.  Cuervo is an English teacher at North Bergen, while also serving as moderating director of the drama club.  That makes him the de facto boss of the whole production, while Defendini is an art director at the school, facing the daunting task of trying to think like Giger.

While it seems true that Perfecto focused mainly on things like scheduling, budget, and making sure all the actors were on-point, and Defendini was concentrated on trying to find a good version of both the Derelect and the Nostromo, the overall impression I get is a true group effort, in which no one was ever invested in ego over giving the audience a good show for their money.  It's seems to be one of those minor details that tends to go unnoticed by a lot of the commentary on this production.  To be fair, all the other articles have nothing but praise for it, and that counts for a lot.  I just think it helps to remember that oftentimes a good working environment is what helps to make sure everyone is putting their best foot forward, even if it's content to reach just as high as a good evening of community theater.

- There is one memorable moment where the Xenomorph is allowed to stalk right through the aisles auditorium, while the creatures low, menacing growls can be heard on the soundtrack.  This is often capped by moments when the titular alien will lunge and screech at the crowd, much to their thrilled delight.  The whole thing puts one in mind of the 1950s gimmicks of schlock Sci-Fi impresarios like Roger Corman and Williams Castle.  That's also one of the highest compliment I can think of.  It might not sound like much.  However, any fan of the type of old, 50s, Sci-Fi B Movies that probably inspired O'Bannon and Scott will realize this play sort of manages to bring the Xeno back home to its roots.

- I was thinking just now of the first time we see the titular "Alien" make his first big entrance.  Like in the movie, it comes with the death of Harry Dean Stanton's character.  In the film, he's grabbed from above, as the Xeno sneaks up on him from above the rafters of the ship's engine system (at least I think that's what the original film set was meant to convey).  Here in the theater, the alien is revealed to be hiding inside of an air duct, and its cue is to briefly pop out of this chamber like a Lovecraftian Jack out of it's Box, and grab the actor playing Brett, then drag him kicking and screaming offstage.  I can see why they went with this approach, and I'm not about to knock it.  The play scene works just perfect as it is.  All I'd like to do is offer a possible suggestion that can be used if you ever want to shake things up to make the scene a bit more interesting for the actors.  This involves an alternate way to play the big grab moment for maximum scares.  It involves using a riff on a trick I saw performed once in another Horror classic.  There's a scene in John Carpenter's Halloween where Jamie Lee Curtis is cowering in pitch black dark on the left side of the screen, while Old Mr. Mikey is hiding right behind her.

Carpenter made an interesting choice with how to film that scene, and it's this idea of his that made it work so well.  The scene is shot in semi-darkness, with Laurie in the foreground, and Micheal kept way hidden in the back.  The director went with an interesting trick to make the audience aware that the killer was in the scene.  What he did was he brought the lighting slowly up in the background, until the gaunt, pale outlines of the Shape mask became clear and visible in the right background side of the screen.  It reveals that Myers was standing more or less right beside her this whole time, and it grants the scene a greater sense of tension and threat.  It remains one of the most memorable scenes I've ever encountered in a work of Horror.  It's also left me asking if maybe this same approach could work in any possible future production of the Scott adaptation?  The one thing to note is that Carpenter was using an in-camera track to pull off that shot.  However, it shouldn't be too much of a challenge to position the actor the playing the Xenomorph in a darkened part of the stage, and then just do the same thing, with the light slowly revealing him standing right by the second victim, waiting to strike.

This could even allow the adapters to make the scene more in line with the film, by letting the alien tower over "Brett" for a few moments of pure horror, before going straight for the kill.  Bear in mind, this just one fans suggestion from the aisles.  I'm in no way saying that this makes for a better way to stage the scene.  It's just one idea involving a neat trick that might work well, if it's even important      

- A few paragraphs above, I asked how it was possible for any of the two showrunners to even get a play like this off the ground, without getting copyrighted into oblivion?  Part of the answer might have to do with positive word of mouth helping to make sure the cast and crew managed to get into all the right good graces.  That's another issue facing a play like this.  It's one thing to try and adapt an author like Samuel Beckett, J.M. Barrie, or Arthur Miller.  When you decide to adapt a heavily lawyered movie, that's something else.  I've since learned that Cuervo made an equally successful previous attempt a making a movie trod the boards.  That was an adaptation of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, if you can believe such things are possible.  The difference there, however, was that issues of copyright weren't a problem.  Thanks to a bureaucratic fuck-up in the original film's editing process way back in the 60s, Big George's masterpiece is now free to be released, re-issued, or adapted and performed to the heart's contentment of anyone who's willing to try and get away with it.  Turns out free enterprise can be grandly ironic like that if you don't know what you're doing.  It's not the case with a film like Alien, however.  Cuervo and Defendini were going to need more on their side to make it work.


Believe it or not, this is the exact point where two of the key players in the original film come into play.  Somehow word of their first live performance managed to reach the notice of none other than Ellen Ripley herself.  When it was brought to her attention, the first thing Sigourney Weaver did was to fan gush all over twitter, and give the play its most ringing, and enthusiastic endorsement.  When this was done, the Lady herself turned right around and really kicked things into high gear by sharing her surprise discovery with none other than Sir Ridley Scott himself.  For some reason, this turned out to be one of the few things capable of putting a genuine smile on the director's face.  While more professional in his adulation, Scott was not only open and receptive to the efforts of Cuervo and Defendini, he decided to foot the bill needed for a full, professional, encore presentation, which resulted in the main video shown above.  It helps answer the question of why Cuervo and his team were even allowed to get away with such an audacious stunt in the first place.  I'll just leave it by saying they have got to be one of the luckiest group of performers in history.  James Cameron also gave it a good notice, as well.

- That just leaves the question of whether the play is any good, or not?  The question's kind of redundant when you stop and think about it, however.  I mean, come on, they are literally performing the original Alien.  Of course I'm going to have to recommend a play like this.  You'd think I'd come all this way, after singing its praises, just to bash on the whole thing?  Give me a break.  This play's awesome.  The actors and producers of this event can all congratulate themselves on a job well done.  That still leaves unanswered the vital question of why does a play like this work so well as it does?  Now the closest answer most readers might reach for is what they regard as the obvious one.  Didn't I just answer my own question less than a second ago?  It's Alien, after all?  How much more awesome can a school play get?  Well, you see, that just begs another question in my mind.  If I ask whether the play works, and most people answer yes, then in response to why that should be, all most folks can do is point  out the fact that it's Alien, and most seem content to leave it at that.  This reply in itself says volumes, ones that the speakers might not even be aware of.  It's the best example of an almost pitch-perfect, unconscious tautology.  It may not be the whole truth, yet it's the best they've got to go with.

Such a reply would amount to an entire assumption so basic that it might not even be aware of itself.  Anyone who wishes to defend this play will inevitably find themselves appealing to the same fact.  That being that Scott's original masterpiece has been faithfully translated to the stage.  They may also point out that it's no mean feat in itself, and while I'd have to agree, up to a point, that still doesn't address the question of why it works.  Perhaps it would help if I draw the audience's attention to some basic facts about the production.  Steven Defendini went the extra mile of trying as hard as humanly possible in recreating the look and feel of H.G. Giger's original designs for the Xenomorph and the Space Jockey.  That much is obvious from even a casual glance at the video plastered above.  Correct?  If that's how you feel about it, even in just a passing way, then here's another brain teaser.  Defendini's efforts might be described as admirable.  Indeed, it is just possible to wonder how far he could go with such latent talents for set design on display here.  That still doesn't get rid of this nagging question I have.

While it's clear the producers of the play managed to find that necessary extra mile, does that mean the whole production somehow looks better than the original movie?  Okay, see?!  Right there!  Most of you reading this began to scoff the moment I even made the suggestion.  It was almost like an automatic process.  That's how ridiculous the whole idea was in your mind.  And from a technical standpoint, you might be right.  To this day, most viewers and fans are in agreement that Alien remains one of the great looking pictures in the history of cinema.  It sounds all to the good, and is at least true enough in one sense.  In another, however, I'd argue that perhaps none of that matters as much as even the die-hard enthusiasts maintain.  What's more, I think the wild, overnight success of the Bergen play just helped make my point.  While Defendini's efforts might come off as impressive, it still can't change the fact that it all pails in comparison to the look and feel of the original film.  Except that there's one sense in which none of that is true, and it has nothing to do with the visuals.  Here's what I mean.

Let's go back, cast aside the set details, and instead focus in on the main action and plot of the movie play, for a moment.  Perhaps the most fascinating aspect about this whole production is that somehow a bunch of high school, drama club kids have managed to recreate the exact same vibe, and atmosphere of Scott's film on what amounts to less than a shoe-string budget.  In fact, as Cuervo and Defendini like to point out, they really have no professional funds to speak of.  The net result still somehow manages to come off like gangbusters.  Why does it manage to work so wellHow is such a success even possible?  I think it's when we look for the specific answers to these questions, that the actual success of the stage adaptation will become a lot more clear.  We might even see the story proper in a whole new light.  It could then become obvious that the achievements of these students is greater than realized.

In order to explain why the theater playhouse version of Scott's film works so well, we'll have to take a quick look back into a forgotten, or else just submerged part of entertainment history.  Shakespeare's name has been tossed around here and there throughout this article.  Now it's time to bring him front and center, in order to help us get a better reading on why this adaptation works.  This is the part where the critic has to rely on more than his own judgment in order to get the point across.  For that very reason, all of what I have to say next is reliant on an obscure, and forgotten text known simply as Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition, by Samuel Leslie Bethell.  Like I say, it's one those books that are not just off the radar.  It's sort of disappeared from the grid entirely, probably somewhere around the time Eisenhower was being sworn as president.  However, while practically no one is familiar either with Bethell, or his literary critical efforts, I really do think I have take just this brief moment to maintain that the insights of his volume of forgotten lore have proven invaluable for my own efforts.  Not only does Bethell's text help explain the overall success of the Alien play, I'm willing to go further and claim that it can help modern audiences understand the way they absorb their entertainment.

Let's start with a simple example from the Bergen play itself, in order to get the point across.  Take the theater stage version of the Nostromo.  It's about as harmless as possible, yet when you compare it against Ron Cobb's set design for the same spaceship from the movie, most are going to be inclined to call it a no-brainer, and say the film wins.  Cobb's original construction was yet another leap forward in movie production setting, and most will point to it as some kind of gold standard to be looked up to, if not always emulated.  In contrast, the North Bergen stage consists of just a few meager backdrops tweaked to resemble whatever it can of Cobb's original Cassette Futurist aesthetic.  The trouble is it's clear the production can never quite manage that kind of engineering feat, so it doesn't even bother to try.  The best it can do is a few background panels with blinking lights attached to the whole thing, here and there.

The kicker, however, is that none of this is seamless.  The background is littered with blank gaps here and there, in order for the actors to enter and exit the stage.  It makes sense from a logistical standpoint.  It also totally ruins any possible illusion of a seamless secondary reality.  There's no possibility for achieving anything like a total, willing suspension of disbelief.  The audience will always know that it's just, as they say, "taking in a show".  The strangest part about this setup is how none of it seems to act as the logical hindrance that you would expect it to be.  Instead of constantly being taken out of the moment, the viewer is instead draw into the story with the same, constant sense of building excitement and dread as that found in the movie house.  So how on earth is that possible?  The best answer I've got is that Cuervo and his team have stumbled upon a valuable discovery without quite meaning too.

I'll go out on a limb here to say that the principle they've let loose from the box is that it isn't really the production value that audiences tend to embrace more than anything else.  Instead that honor seems reserved for the actual narrative proper.  It's a statement that's pretty barefaced in itself.  Though it's something that critics like S.L. Bethell are able to demonstrate with surprising ease.  What I am convinced of is that the Bergen Drama Club has excavated a long forgotten fact about the writing and reading of fiction that was probably well known by none other than the Bard himself.  Rather, let's say that Cuervo and Defendini are unintentionally doing Shakespeare proud, by proving him to have been right all along.  The reason they've been able to do this is because, like Bill from Stratford, the showrunners have had to create an epic space story on a no-string budget, and in succeeding, have proven where the real draw of Alien lies.  This is the same feat Shakespeare was good at pulling off.

The sort of "realism" represented by a fully funded movie set such as Scott's remains as unobtainable for Defendini and Cuervo as it was for the creator of Hamlet and Juliet.  All three of them were and are limited by a venue which can never achieve a total state of artistic naturalism.  That's probably just as well, because aside from being a contradiction in terms, the simple truth is that "realism" has perhaps been favored a bit too much at the expense of the inherent, imaginative, fantastical nature of all fiction.  Is it wrong to argue that every imaginary narrative is a fairy tale in one sense or another?  If the current opinion is against me in this belief, then all I can say is I'm willing to go against the grain.  And writers like Shakespeare prove to be, as critics like Bethell are able to prove, a useful ally in this line of thinking.  I'd argue that the inability of either the Bergen or Elizabethan theater to produce an illusion of actuality is "wholly to the good.  In both "Shakespeare's (and the North Bergen, sic) "stage, the audience remains vividly aware of acting in progress, and the communication, through their cooperative goodwill, of a work of dramatic art (Bethell, 32)".

And still, the interesting fact remains the same.  In neither case does Shakespeare, his unassuming heirs, nor even their audiences seem to be all that bothered by this apparent lack, or limitation of dramatic resources.  Instead, guys like Defendini and Cuervo seem content to merely follow after the Bard by "exploiting these shortcomings, so that dramatic convention in the production is integrally related to conventions in the treatment of plot, in the presentation of character, and in the dialogue.  Moreover, all three artists even draw attention to the play as play, overtly, in the dialogue itself, emphasizing verbally what the manner of production already implied: the co-existence of play-world and real world in the minds of the audience.  Perhaps when characters within a play referred to plays and players, or noted that "All the world's a stage', a certain excitement, or resonance, may have been all that forced itself into conscious attention.  As they had never experience naturalistic drama, the Elizabethans would not appreciate, as we do today, the nature of their own drama in distinction from it; just as it is impossible to appreciate a state of physical well-being, until suffering has supplied us with a standard of comparison.  But this double consciousness of play-world and real world has the solid advantage of 'distancing' a story, so that the words and deeds of which it consists may be critically weighed in the course of its performance (32-33)".  I think this is the real achievement of the Alien stage production.

In other words, what's interesting about it is the way it manages to break down, or deconstruct our notions of realism and naturalism in any given work of fiction, regardless of medium.  In doing so, it's merely taking an unconscious leaf from an artist many have gone on to consider the greatest writer of all time.  Cuervo, Defendini, and the Bergen High School students even go on to do it so well, in fact, that they are able to successfully replicate the same results that would have positively effected an audience of Renaissance groundlings taking in an evening at the Globe Theater.  I'll have to admit that no, this isn't what I came in expecting to happen.  At the same time, I'm glad they did it, for this stage adaptation has proven to me more now than ever that it is possible to get audiences to look at, or rather read, a work of fiction in ways that are more multi-dimensional than what we've accustomed ourselves to over the course of recent years.  It's good to know it's possible to revive such ideas for the future.

What this play proves to me more than anything else is that all the real stories, the ones with some sort of actual, narrative power in them, can exist on their own, regardless of the medium in which they appear.  It's an interesting thing to learn, because up till now, the general shared consensus seems to be that certain stories can only work in certain terms, and not in any others.  What the Bergen Drama Club has shown with their adaptation is that this probably isn't the case.  The way they go about proving this is ironic.  Because in the strictest sense, all their doing is being true the text of Scott's film.  It really is nothing more or less than that.  The set design can't possibly match up to it's source material, and perhaps the greatest surprise is to find out that it doesn't have to in order to tell a good story.  Instead, it comes off more as a very effect fireside tale being told by a group of very talented summer campers.  In doing so, without ever being able to reach the heights of the initial motion picture, they succeed in capturing the atmosphere and essence of Alien without ever having to go as far as a Hollywood budget.

I don't know how this is going to sound, yet I think it is just possible that the students of this school have managed to capture a milestone in the history of entertainment.  They should not only be proud of their work, their efforts perhaps ought to be studied in more detail for what it can tell us about how we enjoy the best stories that we all tell ourselves.  In particular, what I think they prove is that "production value", as such, is not an integral part of what makes any narrative work.  Instead, it's about telling what happens, and then just trusting the audience to have enough of whatever imaginative interest is required, in order to be won over by the story you have to tell.  It can be classical, romantic (in several senses of that term) folksy, schlock, what have you.  In the end, what a performance like this demonstrates is that all any good story needs is a teller talented enough to tap into the imagination, and an audience with enough openness to that same, strange, yet constant function of the Mind.  It's something that Shakespeare's audiences took for granted in their day.  Perhaps its worth cultivating in our own age.  Beyond all this, what matters most is that the story itself be as entertaining as possible.

In that regard, the players and produces of the North Bergen High School Drama Society have passed their test with flying colors.  It might sound like hyperbole to call what they've done here a milestone, of sorts  However I'll swear I can't find any other word that fits what they've accomplished here.  It is one of Art's great small marvels, and deserves to be remembered going forward.  It's with all this in mind that I can say with full certainty and enthusiasm that the stage play adaptation of Alien is well worth it.  With any luck, it can be a well studied and admired future classic for its accomplishment. 

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