High school's elaborate production of Alien becomes international sensation

Student play comes 40 years after release of critically acclaimed sci-fi film and features costumes and sets made of recycled materials

Dave Itzkoff
Tuesday 26 March 2019 13:48
High school's elaborate production of Alien becomes international sensation

A New Jersey high school has found itself the unexpected recipient of online acclaim and viral attention for its recent stage production of 1979 science-fiction thriller Alien.

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 $10m, Alien: The Play had costumes, props and set designs made mostly from donated and recycled materials.

Both the film and the stage adaptation feature a nightmarish extraterrestrial designed by artist HR Giger – played, in this production, by a high school student.

Alien: The Play is the brainchild of Perfecto Cuervo, an English teacher at the school and the moderator of its drama club, and Steven Defendini, an art teacher there.

Last year, the two teachers worked together on a student staging of Night of the Living Dead, the George Romero zombie movie. Then over the summer, they started to plan a follow-up.

As Mr Cuervo recalled their conversation, he said, “Do you think we can do Alien as a play?” It seemed to require few sets, he said: “We have a spaceship. We have a planet. It could be handled.”

Mr Defendini said he answered: “I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know if we can do that. But we’re going to do that.”

The original Alien was directed by Ridley Scott and written by Dan O’Bannon.

Released by Twentieth Century Fox, it is a claustrophobic horror film about the crew of a small outer-space vessel that encounters an unwelcome, non-human stowaway that has come to be known as the xenomorph. (Spoiler alert: The story doesn’t end well for most of them.)

The film was a substantial hit, critically and commercially, that burrowed itself deep in the cultural consciousness and started a decades-long film franchise.

Mr Cuervo, who directed the students’ version, said he spent about a month and a half adapting it from the film. Casting took place in November; the crucial role of Ripley (the Sigourney Weaver character) went to Gabriella Delacruz, a senior at the school.

Ms Delacruz, who had been in the school’s Night of the Living Dead, said that she was proud to carry on the feminist tradition that Ripley represents.

“She’s a female character who’s really portrayed as the hero at the end,” she said. “She isn’t the damsel in distress. She got to be a badass, if I’m allowed to say that.”

Xavier Perez, a sophomore, was chosen to play the xenomorph. “When we did the casting,” Cuervo said, “there was one person that showed up – a tall, skinny kid. I told him, ‘Well, I guess you’re it. You’ve got the part.’ ”

Rehearsals began in December, while Mr Defendini, the play’s art director, oversaw the creation of exotic terrains and spaceship interiors, trying as best as possible to reproduce the aesthetic of the film.

“Some of the walls are covered in egg crates, not because it was the cheapest solution but because it was the most authentic,” Mr Defendini said.

Although the original Alien movie is about to turn 40 years old, Mr Defendini said its characters still resonated with his teenage students, who know its monsters from video games, pop-cultural lore and recent sequels like Alien: Covenant.

“We had kids in the crew who knew the specific genesis and species of the xenomorph,” he said. “What gender it is, what planet it’s from. Everything you could know.”

Asked if the drama club had sought official permission to present the play, Mr Cuervo said, “Our main goal was really just to put on a great play for the kids, just get them out, stage front.”

(The Fox film studio was acquired earlier this month by The Walt Disney Co. A press representative for Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Alien: The Play has drawn widespread praise on social media; an official promotional Twitter account for the Alien franchise said, “We are impressed! 40 years and still going strong …” and “Bravo!”

Comedian Patton Oswalt wrote, “This is fantastic. Blows my high school’s adaptation of PINK FLAMINGOS out of the water.”

An online trailer has received more than 130,000 views on YouTube, and the production was covered on news sites like The Verge and The AV Club.

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Mr Defendini pointed out that a tweet about Alien: The Play, posted by Leslye Headland, a co-creator of the Netflix series Russian Doll, had been liked by Joss Whedon, writer and director of The Avengers.

That, he said, was sufficient validation for the students.

“For them, that’s enough, to be acknowledged by their favourite movie director,” Mr Defendini said. “For a bunch of high school kids, I can’t imagine what it’s like to see how much recognition they’re getting for seven months of hard work.”

New York Times

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