The Eighth Wonder of the World: King Kong

Ben Miles Reviews - Theater
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Merian C. Cooper gained his interest in gorillas when his uncle gifted him with a book, Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa, which told of Paul Du Chaillu' exploits on the African continent. Cooper, at the time he was given the book, was six years old. The boy became a man and a filmmaker. He contracted with RKO studios and got them to back his directorial efforts on a movie about a terror of a gorilla. That movie, with a memorable performance by Fay Wray, would be completed and released in 1933 and be called King Kong.

Inspired by Cooper’s 20th century masterwork on Kong, as well as by Delos W. Lovelace’s novel based on the gargantuan gorilla, King Kong was remade as a film in 1976 starring Jessica Lange opposite a Kong incarnation and, in 2005, with Naomi Watts costarring with the pugilistic primate. King Kong is also currently being staged on Broadway as a musical, with a 2,000 pound puppet as the title character.

But it’s doubtful that a more imaginative staging of King Kong exists than the production currently on the boards at Fullerton’s Maverick Theater (through March 17).  Adapted and directed by Brian Newell, the production is inventively interspersed with  scenes projected onto a green-screen capturing the mood and motion of 1930s New York City as well as views of dense jungle and, of course, that magnificent monster Kong. All the while, live actors incarnate the characters known from the novel and the film.

Movie auteur Carl Denham (played with a manic focus by Paul Zelhart) becomes obsessed with the legend of a beast that exists on a faraway and mystic island. Denham enlists an expedition team to display his discovery on film — with it the he adds a thematic subtext: beauty and the beast. Soon after locating and docking on Skull Island, the native inhabitants (still in the hunter-gatherer stage of anthropological development) abscond with the beautiful actress Denham has cast to star opposite the putative beast (Kalinda Gray is well cast as Ann Darrow, the damsel in a torn dress; Ms. Gray has the perfect anatomy to embody this role). After witnessing Kong attack a multitude of jungle predators, the big gorilla’s affection for Ann is apparent, as he gently grasps her in his big hairy hand (the way this move is undertaken is a sight of stagecraft to behold).

With powerful explosives, Kong is brought down, chained and towed to New York City to be put on stage for audiences to pay to see. In a burst of animal adrenaline, Kong breaks from his chains and enters the cityscape, eventually climbing the Empire State Building. The consequences have been immortalized on film, and it is given a fitting and witty homage by the Maverick Theater.

Kudos to the support players, including a Jake Kilroy as Jack Driscoll; Glenn Freeze as Captain Englehorn; Scotty Keister in two roles; Donny Van Horn also doing double-duty in a duo of parts; John Castro as the Witch Doctor; and Joe Sanders as Lumpy.

In addition to Brian Newell’s inventive direction, a shout-out is well earned by costume designer Celestina Hudson and scenic artist Alex Conway; they both add nuanced period touches to the production, which increases the joy of this salute to the monkey business.

The Eighth Wonder of the World: King Kong continues at the Maverick Theater through March 17.  Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sunday shows are at 5 p.m. For reservations call (714) 526-7070. For online ticketing and further information visit maverick