High School Kids Stage Alien: The Play, Get Kudos from Ridley Scott and Sigourney Weaver

High school drama departments tend to work from a pretty standardized repertoire, which makes sense given the strict limitations they work under: short time frames, school-sized budgets, teenage actors. The elaborate, Hollywood film-like productions staged by Max Fischer in Wes Anderson's Rushmore speak to frustrated high-school theater directors and their fantasies about what they could put on stage with a bit more in the way of resources. But just this month, a real high-school drama club put on a show that out-Max Fischered Max Fischer, drawing not just the astonishment of the internet but the respect of one of the most eminent filmmakers alive.

"A New Jersey high school has found itself the unexpected recipient of online acclaim and viral attention for its recent stage production of Alien, the 1979 science-fiction thriller," writes the New York Times' Dave Itzkoff. "Alien: The Play, presented last weekend by the drama club of North Bergen High School, starred a cast of eight students in the film roles originally played by Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt and Ian Holm. Whereas the movie had a budget in the range of about $10 million, Alien: The Play had costumes, props and set designs made mostly from donated and recycled materials." Or as North Bergen student Justin Pierson put it in NJ.com's video on the surprise hit: "This is going to sound really funny but (the set crew) used garbage essentially."

With that "garbage" — "just anything that was lying around, like cardboard and metal" — they built not only a set that convincingly evokes the dark claustrophobia of the space ship Nostromo, but a shockingly accurate-looking alien, the terrifying creature originally born from the mind of Swiss illustrator H.R. Giger.




The young cast and crew get into detail about how they did it on Syfy's Fandom File podcast: "Much of the attention has highlighted and embraced their DIY approach," writes host Jordan Zakarin, and "they were endlessly creative in building the sets, with hand-puppet aliens, egg crate walls, a stuffed cat (the stand-in for Jones was a particularly ingenious idea), and other sweded props."

Responses to the video clips of Alien: The Play that have circulated on the internet include a personal congratulatory message from the original film's star Sigourney Weaver as well as a letter from its director Ridley Scott, which Alien: The Play's director, North Bergen English-teacher-by-day Perfecto Cuervo, posted on Twitter. "Limitations often produce the best results because imagination and determination can surpass any shortfalls and determine the way forward — ALWAYS," writes Scott, who has built his reputation in the film industry on taking firm and decisive action in the face of any and all production difficulties. He also offers both the funds for an encore production as well as a suggestion: "How about your next TEAM production being Gladiator." No doubt Cuervo and his enterprising players are feeling pretty vindicated in their decision not to do Our Town right about now.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Leonard Bernstein Awkwardly Turns the Screws on Tenor Jose Carreras While Recording West Side Story (1984)

What have we here?

Evidence that the Maestro is a monster?

Or a behind the scenes reminder that Arrested Development’s wannabe actor Tobias Fünke is not too far off base when he says that to make it in “this business of show, you have to have the heart of an angel and the hide... of an elephant.”

Both? Neither? Any way you slice it, the recording session above is not for your typical cast album.




West Side Story, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, opened on Broadway in 1957.

The film, starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer as star-crossed lovers Maria and Tony, came along four years later.

After which it’s been an endless round of community, college, and high school productions.

Are you a Jet or a Shark?

The celebrated tenor José Carreras does not make a particularly believable Jet.

While untold numbers of white kids have attempted Puerto Rican accents to play Maria, Bernardo, Anita, and Chino, that knife has seldom cut the other way.

Perhaps a dialect coach could have transformed Carreras’ thick Spanish accent into Tony’s New York street punk vernacular, but the prep time for these September 1984 recording sessions was minimal, and not tied to any actual production.

Carreras was also, at 38, a bit long in the tooth to be tackling the part.

But what might have been deal breakers for a Broadway revival were permissible for this weeklong special event in which world-caliber artists, "whose main reason for existing,” according to Bernstein, was their singing, would be laying down the score in the studio, backed by a full orchestra.

As he told his associate and eventual biographer, classical music television presenter Humphrey Burton:

l'd always thought of West Side Story in terms of teenagers and there are no teenage opera singers, it's just a contradiction in terms. But this is a recording and people don't have to look 16, they don't have to be able to dance or act a rather difficult play eight times a week. And therefore we took this rather unorthodox step of casting number-one world-class opera singers. I suppose the only foreseeable problem was that they might sound too old—but they don't, they just sound marvelous!

Bernstein’s approving mood is nowhere in evidence in the above clip, in which he hectors Carreras for screwing up the tempo, as the instrumentalists and sound engineers squirm.

Carreras’ discomfort and chagrin is so palpable that you can find the sequence on YouTube under the title “Tenor Keeps Screwing Up while Bernstein ConductsAwkward Sequence,” as if he were some weedy upstart, still wet behind the ears, when in fact, he had just flown in from Verona, where he’d been appearing as Don José in Carmen.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Carreras’ Maria, supplied a taste of what it was like to sing for the composer:

He's a man of many emotions. You can see his moods, his frustrations, his happiness, his wanting to perform to people. That's the thing that makes the man interesting. One is constantly trying to read him, but he's on another planet!

In the end, Bernstein declared himself pleased with what had been accomplished, or at least with the enduring power of the material.

But readers with an anti-authoritarian streak may not feel satisfied until they’ve seen the clip below, in which a rogue BBC Orchestra trumpet isn’t quite so deferential in the face of the Maestro’s criticism.

Listen to the 1984 recording of West Side Story for free on Spotify.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain in New York City this April. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Lin-Manuel Miranda Perform the Earliest Version of Hamilton at the White House, Six Years Before the Play Hit the Broadway Stage (2009)

Another immigrant comin' up from the bottom

His enemies destroyed his rep, America forgot him… 

Holler if you can remember a time when few Americans were well-versed enough in founding father Alexander Hamilton’s origin story to recite it in rhyme at the drop of a hat.

Believe it or not, as recently as the summer of 2015, when Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Hamilton: An American Musical exploded on Broadway, Hamilton the man was, as the Tony award winning lyrics above suggest, largely forgotten, a relic whose portrait on the $10 bill aroused little curiosity.

Back then, Hamilton was perhaps best known as the hapless soul embodied by Michael Cera in the web series Drunk History.




Ron Chernow’s 2005 biography served up a more nuanced portrait to readers with the stamina to make it through his massive tome.

That’s the book Miranda famously took along on vacation in the period between his musical In the Heights’ Broadway and Off-Broadway runs.

The rest, as they say, is history.

As is the above video, in which a 29-year-old Miranda performs The Hamilton Mixtape for President Obama, the First Lady, and other luminaries as part of a White House evening of poetry, music, and spoken word.

There’s your Hamilton (the musical) origin story.

Its creator initially conceived of it as a hip hop concept album in which celebrated rappers would give voice to different historical characters.

Music director Alex Lacamoire’s jubilant expression at the White House piano confirms that they had some inkling that they were on to something very big.

A few months later, Miranda reflected on the experience in an interview with Playbill:

The whole day was a day that will exist outside any other day in my life. Any day that starts with you sharing a van to the White House with James Earl Jones is going to be a crazy day! I was the closing act of the show and I had never done this project in public before so I was already nervous. I looked at the President and the First Lady only once and when I looked at him he was whispering something to her and I couldn’t let that get to me. Afterwards, George Stephanopoulos came up to me and said, "The President is back there talking about your song, he’s saying ‘Where is (Secretary of the Treasury) Timothy Geitner? We need him to hear the Hamilton rap!’" To hear that the President enjoyed the song was a real dream come true. 

The Obamas enjoyment was such that they appeared in a pre-taped segment to introduce the Hamilton cast at the 2016 Tony awards (a tough year for any other musical unlucky enough to have debuted in the same period as this juggernaut).

They also hosted a Hamilton workshop for DC-area youth, for which the Broadway cast traveled down on their day off, performing the opening number out of costume. Biographer Ron Chernow was in the front row for that one, as Obama remarked that “Hamilton is the only thing Dick Cheney and I agree on.”

(“Dick Cheney attended the show tonight,” Miranda tweeted after Cheney's visit. “He’s the OTHER vice-president who shot a friend while in office.” Current Vice President Mike Pence also took in a performance shortly before his swearing in, though his appearance was met with a much less pithy response.)

As for The Hamilton Mixtape, many of Miranda's dream rappers turned out for its recording, though the tracks they laid down diverge from the one performed live for the Obamas in 2009, which legions of adoring fans can chant along to thanks to the musical's overwhelming popularity. Instead, this mixtape’s contributing artists were invited to reimagine and expand upon the themes of the play—immigration, ambition, and stubble—placing them in an explicitly 21st-century context.

Listen to The Hamilton Mixtape and the original cast recording of Hamilton for free on Spotify.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She has yet to win the Hamilton lottery. Join her in New York City for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain, this March. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch a New Virtual Reality Production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: A Modern Take on a Classic Play

Often compared to The Tempest, Samuel Beckett's Endgame may have as much of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in it, though the author was unwilling to acknowledge the influence to Theodor Adorno. Beckett's central character, the blind, aged Hamm, spends all of his time in a throne haranguing the other three, in a gloomy place, The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson wrote, “somewhere between life and death.” Hamm might have been the Danish prince grown old and bitter, left with nothing but what Beckett called Shakespeare’s “fat greasy words.”

In any case, Hamlet has long been thought of as a prototype of the absurd, a play where little happens because its protagonist is too haunted to have relationships with the living or make decisions, a condition he complains about in scene after scene. Trauma, existential paralysis, crippling doubt punctuated by fits of rage and violence—these are the makings of the 20th century anti-hero. If the play has a classical hero, a man of action and resolve, it is, absurdly, a dead man, Hamlet’s father, who testily declares his purpose in his final speech, “to whet thy almost blunted purpose.”




Should Hamlet be turned into an immersive VR and augmented reality experience, allowing viewers to inhabit a character's point of view, they might not opt to see things as the moody, depressive, speechifying prince. In Hamlet 360: Thy Father’s Spirit, we instead get to inhabit the ghost, who only appears in the play a handful of times but still fills every scene with his glowering presence. The 60-minute VR “modern adaptation” is a co-production of Boston’s Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and Google.

“Both extremely long by the standards of virtual reality and extremely short by the standards of Hamlet,” writes Elizabeth Harris at The New York Times, the film “can be watched in 3-D using a V.R. headset or in two dimensions on a desktop or mobile device” (see it above). On a vast, darkened set cluttered with fine but shabby furnishings in heaps, glowing lamps, a bathtub, and a car, actors perform condensed scenes while we, as ghost, freely roam about, viewing the action in three dimensions, a device intended to give the viewer “a sense of agency and urgency as an omniscient observer, guide and participant,” the production notes.

The film’s creators, Harris writes, “hope that beyond the fresh experience it provides, it will also serve as a tool to bring great theater to wider audiences—and bring bigger audiences to theater.” It may have that effect, though one might feel it privileges digital effects over the truly immersive, full experience of Shakespeare’s “fat greasy words.” It’s hard to think the “great Shakespearean” Beckett would approve, but he found little to his liking.

Younger, less cantankerous audiences might, however. “Many young people’s first experience of Shakespeare is not all that great,” says director Steven Maler. Hamlet 360 allows the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company to “scale up” their mission to “truly democratize Shakespeare and theater.”  Experience it for yourself above or on YouTube and learn more at Boston’s WGBH, who recently premiered the film. The actors “deliver powerful performances,” the PBS station writes, “that bring the play forward to today, making it both current and timeless.”

via The New York Times

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Lin-Manuel Miranda & Emily Blunt Take You Through 22 Classic Musicals in 12 Minutes

Watching James Corden, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Emily Blunt donning bad wigs to mug their way through a 12-minute salute to 22 movie musical “classics” is a bit reminiscent of watching the three most popular counselors ham it up during an overlong summer camp skit.

Their one-take performance was part of Role Call, a regular feature of the Late Late Show with James Corden. Usually, this fan favorite is an excuse for Corden and a megastar guest—Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Samuel L. Jackson—to bumble through the most iconic moments of their career.




These kinds of larks are more fun for being a mess, and the live studio audience screams like besotted campers at every goofy quick change and winking inside reference. Blunt and Miranda are definitely game, though one wonders if they felt a bit chagrinned that the film they are promoting, Mary Poppins Returns, is given pride of placement, while the original 1964 film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke is strangely absent.

As is Thoroughly Modern Millie, Victor/Victoria, and even The Sound of Music.

Maybe Corden’s saving up for a Julia Andrews-centric Role Call.

What did make the cut points to how few original movie musicals there are to resonate with modern audiences.

Of the 22, over 2/3 started out as Broadway plays.

And "You Can’t Stop the Beat" from 2007’s Hairspray was born of the 2002 stage adaptation, not the gritty 1988 original starring John Waters’ mainstay, Divine.

Is it wrong to hope that most viewers hearing "Your Song" will think, Elton John! not Moulin Rouge”?

And Beauty and The Beast is perhaps not so much a movie musical as a children’s feature-length animation, so why not The Little Mermaid, The Lion  King, or hell, Snow White or Pinocchio?

Alas, 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is as far back as this skit’s memory goes, presumably because the audience has a greater likelihood of recognizing Marilyn Monroe than say, Howard Keel.

More interesting than the jokey horseplay with Into the Woods and The Muppet Movie is the choice to blithely cast white actors in roles that were written for black women (Dreamgirls, Little Shop of Horrors). I don’t think anyone would try to get away with that on Broadway these days, even in in a spoofy charitable event like Broadway Bares or Easter Bonnet… though if they did, getting Lin-Manuel Miranda on board would be a very good idea.

As to why Hamilton isn’t one of the titles below … it’s not a movie musical—yet!

Readers—what glaring omissions leap out at you?

Cabaret

Chicago

La La Land

Beauty and the Beast

Guys and Dolls

Evita

Singin’ in the Rain

Mary Poppins Returns

The Muppet Movie

The Wizard of Oz 

Hairspray

Dreamgirls

Annie

Fiddler on the Roof

Into the Woods 

Little Shop of Horrors

Les Miserables

Moulin Rouge 

Once

Fame 

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Mama Mia

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City this January as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

 

Living Paintings: 13 Caravaggio Works of Art Performed by Real-Life Actors

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the father of Baroque painting, shocked the upper class aesthetes of his day by drafting prostitutes and proletariats as models for his primarily Biblical subjects.

Ten years ago, under the direction of founder Ludovica Rambelli, eight members of the Italian company, Malatheatre, discovered first hand the insanely rigorous poses Caravaggio demanded of his models, creating 23 tableaux vivants inspired by the master’s oeuvre.

The company sought less to reproduce the paintings than the scene Caravaggio would have gazed on from behind his easel.

The 13 stagings in the video above make one aware of the intense physicality evident in Caravaggio’s work.




All those extended arms and inversions are agony for a model. After 30 seconds or so, even a sharply inclined neck or bent back can serve up a small taste of what it’s like to be crucified.

The result is exquisite. The eight players are not just extraordinarily fit specimens, they have clearly devoted much thought to the emotional life of each character they embody, sustaining the moment with great focus and determination.

The action unfolds in the suitably ancient setting of Naples’ Church of Santa Maria Donnaregina Nuova.

When not called upon to model, the performers become stage hands, helping each other to arrange the simple, well chosen props and flowing mantles.

(I enjoyed the small joke of a female Bacchus.)

Performed live to selections from Mozart, Bach, and Vivaldi, this company has settled on the Lux Aeterna section of Mozart’s Requiem to accompany their archival footage.

The next opportunity to see the show performed live will be in Naples on December 28.

Have a look at the video below, for some comparisons between the original paintings and the 13 tableaux vivants seen in the video:

The Entombment of Christ

Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy,

Crucifixion of Saint Peter

The Beheading of St John the Baptist

Judith Beheading Holofernes

Flagellation of Christ

The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew

Annunciation

Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Narcissus,

The Raising of Lazarus

Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy

Bacchus

via This Kids Should See This

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Ayun Halliday is a former artist’s model turned author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, November 12 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

 

The CIA’s Former Chief of Disguise Show How Spies Use Costumes in Undercover Operations

Think on this as you ready your Halloween finery. Sometimes it’s not a case of winning a costume contest, or impressing your friends with your witty take on current events or pop culture.

Sometimes, masquerade is a thin line between life and death.

The CIA’s former Chief of Disguise, Jonna Mendez, rose up through the ranks, having signed on as receptionist shortly after her fiancé revealed—three days before the wedding—that he was actually an undercover agent.




As Chief of Disguise, her mission was to protect case officers in dangerous situations, as well as foreign sources who routinely put their lives at risk by meeting with American operatives.

Transforming their appearance was an additive proposition—while it’s difficult to make someone shorter, slimmer, or younger, it’s not difficult to render them taller, heavier, older…

In her experience, women are easily disguised as men. (She shared with The New York Times' Matthew Rosenberg how she herself passed undetected in male mufti, thanks primarily to a lit cigar.)

Men have a tougher time passing as women. Fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race might take exception to this position, were it not for the assertion that blending in is key.

The goal is to be forgettable, not fabulous.

For Americans abroad, this poses certain cultural challenges.

Mendez stresses that disguise is much more than a simple facial transformation, involving makeup, false hair, and prosthetics.

It’s dress, carriage, gait, jewelry, scent…

The biggest American giveaway is our shoes. An Italian civilian can peg ‘em with one swift glance.

Passing requires further behavioral modifications in the realms of table manners, gait, and even hanging out. (Europeans distribute their weight evenly, whereas Americans lean.)

To fly beneath the radar, the disguised operative must shoot to transform every aspect of their appearance. Imagine a survey wherein the participant recalls every physical aspect of someone they’ve just encountered. The goal is to nudge that participant into answering every question incorrectly.

What color are your eyes? Your hair? How much do you weigh? How tall are you? How old?  How would you describe your nose? Your voice? Your clothing?

Change it.

Change it all.

You can do so by low tech methods, using whatever is on hand. Mendez once maneuvered an agent out of a tight spot on the Sub-Continent, by improvising a quick change with Dr. Scholl’s powder and cosmetics collected from local CIA wives.

She credits her own second husband, CIA “master of disguise” Tony Mendez (the inspiration for Ben Affleck’s character in Argo) with many trade secrets she put into regular practice: dental facades, speech-altering artificial palettes, prosthetics…

At the high end is the mask she wore to brief former CIA Chief, President George HW Bush, on developments within the disguise program. The President was none the wiser.

Meanwhile, a masked American agent chucked his mask under a Moscow rock when danger compelled him to scupper his mission midway through. That mask now resides in the KGB museum where Mendez cannot visit it.

Check out the Mendezes’ book Spydust for more information on their adventures in the field.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, November 12 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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