REVIEWS: “King Kong” and “The Making of King Kong”
85 years ago “King Kong” (1933) premiered in movie theatres, giving birth to a monster ape myth that has captivated imaginations worldwide ever since.
Created from the mind of director and producer Merian C. Cooper (1893-1973), this fantasy fable and its anti-hero primate protagonist have spawned nearly a dozen film adaptations or appearances, several television series and video games, comic books, theme park rides, and now, I suspect, on the inevitable last stop of the cultural recycling process: a big Broadway musical.
As luck would have it, a small Off-Off-Broadway theatre company recently premiered “The Making of King Kong”, a “fantasia” of a play that interrogates the original “King Kong” film through a feminist, intersectional lens. The two could not be more different, and yet, offer a fascinating complement to each other. Below is a look at each.
Live theatre is made of memory. It cannot be rewound and re-watched, listened to, or experienced again precisely the way it is in the moment. The minute it happens, it enters the recesses of our memories, accessed only by mental image, sound, and feeling—and given our limited capacity to remember—only if, well, particularly memorable.
By that measure alone, I wager that no show in New York is currently creating more memories than the thirty-five million dollar, king-sized production of “King Kong” at the Broadway Theatre. No matter what else you might think about this new musical (and there is so much to unpack in that regard), it is an undeniable spectacle, loaded with bouts of thrilling imagery unlike any other Broadway show, maybe ever.
The plot faithfully follows that of the 1933 film, with down-on-his-luck filmmaker Carl Denham (Eric William Morris, charming and villainous) whisking away down-on-her-luck actress Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts) to the unchartered Skull Island in search of the mysterious Kong, who, once found, carries Ann off into the wilderness, kills a snake for her protection, and endears himself to her before being captured by Denham and his crew, and brought back to New York in chains to be paraded on a Broadway stage as “the Eighth Wonder of the World”. You know the tragic ending, planes circling the Empire State Building and all.
The topline takeaway of “King Kong” the musical, though, and perhaps the only reason anyone has purchased a ticket, is the dazzling stagecraft, namely the twenty-foot-tall, two-thousand pound marionette of Kong (read about it here). This highly expressive, part-animatronic puppet creature—designed by Sonny Tilders, and manipulated by some 14 performers on stage and 3 technicians off stage—marks an astonishing accomplishment in theatre-making, fully participating and holding his own in dramatic scene work with Ms. Pitts.
While his range of movement is occasionally limited to centerstage, and the un-screened site of the puppet being lifted into the fly space above destroys a bit of the magic, the magic itself is real, and stunning to behold. Yes, you feel for the puppet, marvel at his size and motion, and perhaps even quicken your heartbeat when he comes to the edge of the stage, stands tall, and peers over the audience. And that perilous final sequence is staged unlike any I’ve seen on stage before—an experience that can only be experienced live.
However, as was the case with “Rocky” the musical several seasons ago, “King Kong” could have worked just fine as a spectacular stage play that behaves like a musical (see: “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”, coincidentally also penned by “Kong” book writer Jack Thorne). Instead, someone along the line decided it needed to be a musical, too. And that was an unfortunate mistake, because it critically wounds what might otherwise be a perfectly satisfactory, and occasionally thrilling, dramatic stage attraction in its own right.
The musical underscoring by Marius de Vries retained from the 2013 Australian premiere production is sufficient to establish mood and tension, but the non-diegetic pop songs by Eddie Perfect (“Beetlejuice”)—that is those songs that reveal the interior thoughts of the characters—added for this production are entirely useless, displaying a musical aesthetic wholly anachronistic to the 1930s setting without enriching the storytelling, revealing information, or developing character or atmosphere.
Director Drew McOnie also serves as choreographer, bizarrely infusing some high energy hip-hop routines into a Great Depression setting that leave Ms. Pitts, our leading lady, gasping for breath as she sings “Queen of New York”. What this show irrefutably nails is the scale and scope of its stagecraft, including the puppetry aforementioned and the highly cinematic video projection design by Peter England and lighting by Peter Mumford. What it clearly misses is a show strong enough to support that stagecraft, and any critical depth or address of 85 years of discussion about the meaning of its source material.
While “Kong” creator Merian C. Cooper always maintained the ape was just an ape—no allegory intended—artist intent is not the final word in what a work of art means (see: basically all arts criticism, ever). Given that black people have been slurred as “apes” and “monkeys” for centuries, countless scholars and critics read “Kong” as overtly trading in racist tropes of its time, warning of the supposed danger of interracial relationships by dramatizing an over-sexualized and violent black figure targeting an innocent white woman as his prey.
A more charitable, though not incompatible reading of “Kong” sees the story as an anti-colonialist allegory for the slave trade—white men capturing a black being in his native land, chaining him, and bringing him to America to satisfy white intrigue and line white pockets with profit from his labor—or else a more general critique of capitalist exploit. Whether intended or not, these parallels exist, and “King Kong” the musical does little, beyond casting an African American actress as Ann Darrow, to address them.
As for the troubling gender dynamic of the innocent waif robbed of agency, tossed about by the men and ape in her life, in this “King Kong”, she’s now a fierce and strong woman—assiduously more 2018 than 1931—with a roar of her own, instead of a non-stop stream of screams. The attempt, by this all male-creative team, to remake Ann as a feminist icon (“I’m just not a damsel in distress!”), though, is as transparent as it is poorly executed.
There is an oddly unsettling, meta experience of watching a show about an ape on a Broadway stage whose major draw is seeing an ape on a Broadway stage, which makes me wonder if anyone along the ten year process of developing this musical stopped to reflect on one of the central lessons of “King Kong” itself.
Escaping Kong’s Manhattan, a quicker than expected Subway trip took me to Sunset Park, Brooklyn and a bright yellow garage-doored warehouse that is home to Target Margin Theater. There I caught a performance of the decidedly more low-budget world premiere of “The Making of King Kong” by Lisa Clair.
Where “King Kong” on Broadway eschews thorny questions of white patriarchy, colonialism, and sexism, “The Making of King Kong” Off-Off-Broadway is all about them.
The show begins before the “curtain” rises, as the audience waits outside the makeshift auditorium accompanied by a soundtrack of 1950s and 1960s exotica music. That genre of music, much like the Skull Island of “King Kong”, is a western fiction, a white man’s corrupted impression of African, East Asian, and Oceania’s culture all mixed up in one.
Today, exotica is classified as a type of proto-mod, easy listening lounge music. And to be fair, it is, but, like the “Kong” narrative, it also bears deeply problematic roots. Score one for whomever selected the music—that’s smart scene-setting.
“The Making of King Kong” bears a devised aesthetic as a theatrical fantasia and sharp satire of the “cultural monster behind the myth”, offering a highly fictionalized, absurdist account of the making of the 1933 film of “King Kong” through the eyes of director Merian C. Cooper (Ean Sheehy), cinematographer Ernest B. Schoedsack (Hanlon Smith-Dorsey), and Hollywood starlet—and former Woolworths floral department employee—Fay Wray (Molly Pope).
The behind the scenes process of the making of “King Kong” subsumes the onscreen story itself, with Cooper filling the role of director Carl Denham, and Wray, as actress Ann Darrow, captured by the beast while filming on location.
The “Goddamn Natives” of Skull Island have been replaced by a gentrifying trio of white yoga ladies who sport “piercing blue eyes and golden as fuck hair”, played with cheek by three actors of color (Youree Choi, Claire Fort, and Sauda Aziza Jackson). On a “retreat from men”, these “actual women, with vaginas” who worship Kong and his “ding dong” asked the locals—men dressed as monkeys—to leave the island because they were “problematic” in this post-racial era.
More pointedly put: “we erased them and then we replaced them”, but, hey, it’s a “very small island”, and “they could never afford it anymore, and that’s just, that’s real estate. Namaste.” Of course, “King Kong” the musical also erases those “problematic” natives—not to make point but rather to avoid having to make a point.
Ms. Clair’s play has the exuberant, outsider feeling of a graduate school thesis project, bursting with intelligent ideas, surprises at every turn, and playful experimentation with form that make it exciting to engage with, but just a tad too manic and unfocused for its own good.
Schoedsack, a closet poet, is also raving misogynist, while Wray owns her sexuality, masturbating in the embrace of Kong’s giant hand (here, represented as a pillow-like creation of fingers). In the end, with Kong secured in chains back in Manhattan, Schoedsack lets loose in a rageful, self-pitying, gun-toting poem-turned-tirade reminiscent of the kind of sexist and racist white power dialogue we increasingly hear from the fringes. Cooper follows suit. Yes, there’s violence and death, but in a twist, it’s the white people who are left dead, and Kong who roams free.
Except, that can’t really be the ending, so the play abruptly stops and shows its hand in a joint, unscripted epilogue from the cast led by its black narrator (Kevin R. Free), heretofore heard in voice over or else sitting at a desk stage right commenting on the action. Of course, “The Making of King Kong” is really an argument for the negation of the Kong narrative itself, and the cast makes that clear in these closing moments.
For 85 years, for better or worse, “King Kong”, has captivated our collective cultural imagination in all its varied forms, permeating the very mythology of American life. Maybe it is time for a new mythology, as this humorous but deadly serious deconstruction suggests.
New York, NY 10019
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: November 8, 2018
Final Performance: August 18, 2019
“The Making of King Kong”
Target Margin Theater
The Doxsee Theater
232 52nd Street
Brooklyn, NY 11220
Running Time: 85 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: December 2, 2018
Final Performance: December 15, 2018