Alastair James Murden

"...he has an impeccable sense of timing and possesses the kind of theatrical vision that is more gift than technique: the ability not only to remain unflustered by the chaos, intentional or otherwise, surrounding him, but also to draw on it to help fuel his performance." - ocweekly

Review of "Santa Clause Conquers the Martians" by the OCWeekly

Even for those unfamiliar with the 1964 kiddie flick on which it’s based, Maverick Theater’s annual staging of “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” has become a holiday tradition.

In fact, most of Maverick’s audiences probably enjoy Brian Newell and Nick McGee’s Staged Cinema Productions adaptation of Glenville Mareth’s screenplay more on its own merits than anything. The seasonal show is a wonderfully goofy mixture of scripted parody and off-the-cuff improvisational humor that keeps its audiences in stitches.

This is the first year McGee hasn’t played Santa, and director Newell’s usual Kimar, Robert Dean Nunez, will handle just one performance, with the role of the Martian king (ki + mar, get it?) now being filled by Alastair-James Murden.

With a few exceptions, most of Newell’s regular cast members are back again, with several being supplanted by alternate actors for select performances.

While the source film included a child Pia Zadora as one of the Martian children, it’s best left to memory (or as a dust-covered DVD). Maverick’s staging scuttles most of it anyway, save for the hilariously early ’60s-style pop/novelty song “Hooray for Santy Claus” (by Milton Delugg and Roy Alfred) which is played during the curtain call as the cast members show their mastery of the frug and other period dance moves.

What’s left for Maverick audiences? A fast-moving, over-the-top parody with a camp twist, played expertly by Newell’s cast. Every aspect of the film is ribbed mercilessly, while other comedic targets are also lanced either in scripted or improvised witticisms.

Like Maverick’s parodistic production of the simply awful film “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” this staging includes plenty of deliberate goof-ups. Sliding airlock doors get stuck, props are bobbled and actors “miss” their cues.

A monitor over the flying saucer’s space-age-like door is used to show actual color and black-and-white news footage from the 1950s and ’60s, fictional news reports created by Newell, and to let us see images generated by Newell’s use of a closed-circuit video camera whenever Santa is being interviewed for live television broadcasts in his North Pole toy workshop.

In his first year as Santa, Spencer Douglas is jovial but also carries more weight and authority than past Maverick Santas. We also get hints of Santa’s absent-mindedness, as when he tries to name his eight reindeer: “Dasher, Donner, er, Nixon …”

Between his sophisticated air and polished British accent, Alastair-James Murden strongly resembles actor Hugh Laurie (as himself, not in his “House” persona). Like Douglas, his Kimar is more solid than Kimars from past Maverick productions of the show, yet he gleans plenty of laughs, too, as from Kimar’s dorky, Jim Carrey-like laugh.

Much of the staging’s humor revolves around Nathan Makaryk’s campy villainy as Voldar, the sourpuss Martian who hates everything Santa Claus and Christmas represent. Makaryk interacts with and picks on audience members while reveling in Voldar’s delicious and often silly evil-doing.

Newell’s and McGee’s original script gives Maverick’s cast plenty to work with, and great springboards for improv humor. Film buffs will love the references to “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” “Star Trek” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” At the North Pole, a Martian disguises himself as the Coca-Cola polar bear, a nod to a classic TV commercial, and Sandra Bullock of this year’s outer space film “Gravity” is even referenced.

Running gags include the inability of most characters to remember Betty’s name (calling her “Barack,” “Beyoncé,” “Beaker”) and Voldar and others calling actor Rob Downs by his real name instead of that of his character, Rigna. The cast further breaks the theater convention of the fourth wall by constantly referring to the fact that they’re characters in a play.

While the show’s props are deliberately cheap and cheesy – a gussied-up ironing board is the spacecraft’s control panel and a turkey baster is a magical scepter – Heidi Newell’s all-green costume designs and the cast’s green-man makeup is superb.

Also impressive are director Newell’s sound and video effects, Jim Book’s lighting and David Dean’s airlock door – dig those flashes of bluish lightning and the new Martian hand weapon that emits giant smoke rings.

While the entire run has already sold out, prospective audiences can get onto a standby list by phoning the box office – and hoping for cancellations or no-shows. Either way, most audience members come prepared with cameras, the better with which to exploit photo opportunities with costumed cast members during intermission and after each performance. What better way to ring in the winter holidays?

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