Karyn Plonsky and Mark Vance in King Kong
Giant gorilla loose in the East Village!
RadioTheatre brings King Kong back to New York
By Will McKinley
For most kids, Thanksgiving is all about a giant turkey. For me, it was all about a giant gorilla. Beginning in 1977, WOR-TV Channel 9 here in New York aired the original movie version of King Kong every Thanksgiving Day for nearly a decade. Back in the pre-DVD Dark Ages, those annual showings of the creepy classic were a big event for me the equivalent of a once-yearly visit with a beloved family member who just happened to be a giant gorilla. So it was with great expectations that I went to see the opening night performance of a live version of King Kong at the Red Room, an off-off-Broadway theater above the KGB Bar in the East Village.
The strange story of unrequited monkey love has actually been told on screen three times, first in Merian C. Coopers groundbreaking 1933 film, then in producer Dino De Laurentiiss unintentionally hilarious 1976 travesty and most recently in director Peter Jacksons three-hour bore. Each version is unique, but they all have one thing in common: the giant gorilla. So, how do you take a movie about a giant gorilla and stage it in a tiny black box theater?
For writer and director Dan Bianchi, the answer is simple: you use a combination of sound and imagination. The mission of Bianchis RadioTheatre is to marry the audio drama style of an old-time radio broadcast with the shared intimacy of modern-day experimental theater. With King Kong, Bianchi has artfully adapted a well-known cinematic story into an engaging hybrid of live performance and brilliantly crafted soundscapes. He fills the small Red Room stage with a sound engineer and six talented actors standing before microphones, presenting the story in a static performance style that might be described as active inaction. Bianchi peppers this simple staging with a few scenic flourishes (like fog) and narration to bridge the dialogue. Its up to you to fill in the visual blanks.
Maybe the Kong of your imagination is purple, like the 1970s Hanna Barbera cartoon rip-off The Great Grape Ape. Or maybe hes a guy in a cheesy gorilla suit, like the Kong that tangles with Japans famous fire-breather in the classically awful King Kong vs. Godzilla. Or maybe hes the highly realistic CGI graphic from Jacksons epic. In RadioTheaters King Kong you get your Kong your way.
Bianchis pulpy adaptation sticks to the basic story that we all know and love. Theres a giant gorilla that lives on a mysterious island. He is very happy doing whatever giant gorillas do for fun fighting prehistoric beasts, chomping on screaming natives, leaving giant footprints on the beach until a blond cutie named Ann Darrow shows up and catches his giant eye. Kong and Ann have a tumultuous courtship, travel to New York City and go on a hot date to the top of Empire State Building. Unfortunately for Kong (and the people on the sidewalk below), the date ends badly.
The familiar yarn is spun by an engaging cast, including the luminous Karyn Plonsky as Ann, tough-talking Mark Vance as first mate Jack Driscoll, comically whiny Tom Lacey as producer Carl Denham and the dynamic duo of Patrick Flynne and Cash Tilton as everybody else. The only questionable choice in this mix is the casting of narrator Patrick OConnor, whose vocal stylings bear such a distracting similarity to those of monologist Eric Bogosian that I found myself occasionally confusing RadioTheatre with Talk Radio.
Despite this imperfection, Kong soars to sublime heights as the story unfolds in the spooky jungles of Skull Island, and Bianchis brilliantly constructed soundtrack of bird squawks and ape roars fills the air. Unfortunately, the show does not maintain this same level of artistry for the Gotham-based climax, where the action of Kongs rampage through the city is reported by Flynn as a newscaster on the scene. Flynns clipped delivery is appropriate to the era, but the end result feels more like the play-by-play of a boxing match than engaging drama. (Kong is losing his grip! Hes down! Ten stories! Fifteen stories!)
But these are minor flaws in what is otherwise a ton of fast-paced fun. RadioTheatres King Kong is an offbeat treat for those who believe that the best live entertainment is participatory. I hope that Bianchi and his cast will do a special show on November 22 to mark the 30th anniversary of Channel 9s Holiday Film Festival. Ill bring the giant gorilla.