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With the help of green screens, King Kong takes center stage in new original play

With the help of green screens, King Kong takes center stage in new original play
Kalinda Gray enacts the role originated by Fay Wray in Maverick Theater’s new stage version of the iconic 1933 film “King Kong.” (Photo by Brian Newell)

Legendary movie characters don’t get any bigger than King Kong — unless you include Godzilla.

A few years back, Maverick Theater founder Brian Newell created “Giant Green Lizard,” an original live stage version about the Japanese answer to Kong.

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Now he’s tackling the gargantuan simian who climbed into the hearts of movie-lovers everywhere, and became a cinematic icon, as the titular character of the 1933 RKO Pictures adventure film.

As the famed story goes, Kong rules over the mysterious, prehistoric Skull Island, until the slick movie director Carl Denham subdues and brings him in chains to New York City, where he’s put on display as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”

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In the now-legendary climactic scene, King Kong’s infatuation with blond movie actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) leads him to the top of the Empire State Building and, eventually, to his death in a cinematic fantasy version of the “Beauty and the Beast” fable.

During the filming of “King Kong,” a novelized version of James Creelman and Ruth Rose’s screenplay was written by Delos Lovelace to help sell the upcoming film to the moviegoing public.

Newell said that in 2013 he learned that the rights to the novel were “mishandled,” causing it to fall into the public domain. Therefore, anyone can adapt it without having to obtain or pay for potentially costly performance rights, which is why he chose to adapt this version for his original stage script.

The cast of Maverick’s original stage version stars Paul Zelhart and Kalinda Gray, center, as movie director Carl Denham and movie actress Ann Darrow.
The cast of Maverick’s original stage version stars Paul Zelhart and Kalinda Gray, center, as movie director Carl Denham and movie actress Ann Darrow. (Photo by Brian Newell)

To bring Kong to life and make him appear to tower over the story’s characters at the Fullerton theater, Newell uses green screen rear-projection technology combined with a closed-circuit live video feed of an actor in an ape costume, performing live.

“[Our Kong is] being positioned against miniature sets, such as the top of the Empire State Building and the enormous gate Kong smashes through on Skull Island,” Newell said. “A giant mechanical hand and arm [will] allow the ape to interact with the story’s normal-sized characters.”

Members of Maverick Light and Magic, the theater’s special effects team, will use video mixers to composite animated backgrounds and miniature sets with multiple green-screen shots.

Brian Newell (standing at left) oversees a scene from “King Kong” using green-screen rear projection. The technique allows him to integrate his cast with a live actor portraying the ape, as well as film and video footage.
Brian Newell (standing at left) oversees a scene from “King Kong” using green-screen rear projection. The technique allows him to integrate his cast with a live actor portraying the ape, as well as film and video footage. (Photo by Heidi Newell)

“In regards to computer and video technology, the scope of the project is absolutely beyond what has been done on our stage before,” said Newell, noting that live compositing of multiple video sources is a process similar to what special effects director Willis O’Brien created for “Kong” 86 years ago.

O’Brien’s stop-motion, animated miniature models — and other visual tricks he used in “King Kong” — revolutionized special effects “as much as ‘Star Wars’ did 44 years later,” Newell said.

“King Kong” involves a total of 14 designers and technicians, including costume designer Celestina Hudson, who created and built an ape suit, as well as the film’s iconic Fay Wray dress and Skull Island native costumes.

As far as tone, Newell said his aim was to capture the original film’s combination of adventure and lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek humor while trying to evoke a sense of wonder and excitement within those watching the show.

“[It’s] for those who love the original film and for those who want to take a theatrical adventure into the unknown,” he said.

Eric Marchese is a contributor to Times Community News.

IF YOU GO

What: ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World, King Kong’

Where: Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Ave., Fullerton

When: Through March 17. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 5 p.m.

Cost: $30 ($10 for students with current ID)

Information: (714) 526-7070, mavericktheater.com

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