King Kong | Inhuman Swill | William Shunn


King Kong

This theater review was originally published online at Science Fiction Weekly, May 30, 2007.

You leave the gritty, narrow lanes of Manhattan’s East Village below as you climb the stoop of a crumbling red brick tenement on 4th Street. Off the second-floor landing of the long, steep stairs inside, you catch a glimpse of the infamous KGB Literary Bar—host to readings by the greats of modern speculative fiction—but this is not your destination. You continue your climb to the third floor, negotiate a rickety railed balcony and enter a magical theater of the mind.

The props are simple: six microphones and music stands arranged on a tiny stage. But when you take your seat and the lights go down and the actors appear, you find yourself transported to a time and place before television chased the phantoms of your own creation from the stage inside your head. When the music swells and the narrator intones the RadioTheatre introduction—“Some people think about the world that is and ask, ‘Why?’ We think about worlds that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’”—a tingle races up your spine in anticipation of the thrills to come.

You know the story by heart, and have since almost before you can remember—how filmmaker Carl Denham (Lacey) spots the lovely Ann Darrow (Plonsky) stealing an apple from a sidewalk vendor, how they set sail for a legendary island that time forgot, how natives kidnap Ann and offer her as a bride to their fearsome god Kong, how the giant ape defends her from attack by tyrannosaur, how ship’s mate Jack Driscoll (Vance) leads a party to rescue his beloved Ann, how Kong is defeated and hauled back to Broadway, how he escapes to wreak havoc on New York City and how Kong at last succumbs to biplanes atop the Empire State Building when he loses Ann and thus the will to fight.

You know the story by heart, but still you thrill to every moment, because this awesome spectacle has been created with nothing but words and sound and the more-than-willing participation of your imagination.

A welcome return to Skull Island

RadioTheatre’s Kong is the only take I’ve seen on the giant ape that comes close to replicating the magic of the original movie. Except for length, it would have worked perfectly as an episode of the last great commercial radio drama series, CBS Radio Mystery Theater.

New York City’s RadioTheatre company is devoted to resurrecting the spirit of old-time radio drama, performed live and on stage with the assistance of modern technology, and to doing so with respect for the genres that challenge and reward the imagination. In previous outings they’ve tackled hard-boiled detective stories, horror and science fiction, but with King Kong they’ve taken on what may be their most ambitious and risky project. After all, that giant ape is one of the iconic figures in film, and the innovative 1933 masterpiece in which he stars changed ideas of what cinema could achieve. Other filmmakers have not shied away from the challenge of reinterpreting this classic over the years, but how well could Kong possibly make the transition to theater?

The answer is, stunningly well. Dan Bianchi and his cast and crew have pulled off two great feats in one. First, they have successfully recreated the feel, if not an identical studio setting, of real 1930s radio drama. The voice casting, acting styles, narration, sound effects and music all combine to evoke that same sense of wonder that must have held sway in the days when the whole family would gather around the Philco to hear the latest episode of The Phantom or The Green Hornet. Sometimes lighting effects are used to underscore the action, suggesting a moonlit sea or a sacrificial bonfire, and the actors do accompany their dialogue with gestures and some movement, but for the most part the illusions of the drama spring directly from the voices and the sound. (And it should be noted that Karyn Plonsky can scream.)

Second, and even more critically, they have hewn faithfully to the story of the original movie, which is strong enough that it didn’t need to be futzed with, even while translating the tale into a new medium. Of course, a few enhancements were necessary, the most obvious being a need for the narration. Delivered with laconic brio by Patrick O’Connor, the narration propels the story through scenes where dialogue cannot follow, and with a tip of the hat to those old radio adventure series, the narrator is cast as one of the few crew members who survived the adventure on Skull Island, relating the story many, many years later. O’Connor’s storytelling style is one of the many pleasures of this production.

If this King Kong has an unsung hero, though, it’s sound engineer Wes Shippee, who can be seen hunched over his equipment behind the actors, presumably queueing the right digital sound effect at the right moment. He’s not even apparent at the start of the play, but when he first lifts his head to deliver a bit of dialogue that sits way back in the mix, the viewer realizes what a juggling act it must be for one person to keep all the layers of sound timed correctly with the dialogue.

King Kong is thrilling to watch in performance. But as it unfolds, it’s just as thrilling to sit back in your chair, close your eyes and imagine you’re a kid huddled in the dark next to that warm, humming Philco.  

King Kong
Based on the 1933 motion picture
Adapted and directed by Dan Bianchi
Starring Patrick O’Connor, Tom Lacey, Karyn Plonsky, Mark Vance, Cash Tilton and Patrick Flynne
Sound engineering by Wes Shippee
Sound design and music composition by Dan Bianchi
Produced by RadioTheatre
May 24th - June 10th
Tickets: $20

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