It was almost 75 years ago that a young guy named Orson Welles drove thousands of New Jerseyans into Martian-fueled panic, courtesy of a little radio play called War of the Worlds — using little more than a handful of actors, a live microphone and a busy-box of sound effects.
Here in the jet-pack and moving-sidewalk world of 2012, we like to think we’re a little more sophisticated than that — but when the phenomenon known as The Intergalactic Nemesis touches down in New Jersey (at Red Bank’s own Count Basie Theatre) for the first time on January 28, it will represent the leading edge of what may prove to be an ongoing invasion.
Described as a “live action graphic novel,” Nemesis is a theatrical experience that traces its alien DNA to Flash Gordon comic strips, Victorian “magic lantern” shows — and the lost art of the radio play, under which form the project took shape among a group of friends in Austin, TX more than a dozen years ago.
As conceptualized by co-writer, producer and director Jason Neulander, Book One of the story (subtitled Target Earth) takes place in the pulp-magazine world of the 1930s, where an intrepid newspaper reporter — remember those? — by the name of Molly Sloan joins her assistant Timmy in a battle against the Zygon sludge monster invasion force. As detailed in the show that will appear at the Basie, our heroes wage an epic but lonely fight that places them in encounters with an enigmatic hypnotist and a gallant, time-traveling librarian — bringing them from Earthly ports of call to the Robot Planet and Imperial Zygon itself.
Through constant workshopping and fine-tuning, the slambang sci-fi story expanded into a serial stage presentation. With the addition of a companion book featuring sequential art by Tim Doyle, Nemesis mutated into a crowd-pleasing production that boasts over 1200 projected illustrations, an original score by acclaimed composer Graham Reynolds, TWO touring units of actors, musicians and Foley sound effects artists — and a couple of sequels waiting in the wings.
A native Jersey guy by way of Montvale, Neulander will NOT be making the trip to the Count’s court, but is scheduled to perform in New Orleans with a different Nemesis troupe at the same time as the Red Bank performance. UpperWETside managed to contact him in his warp-speed travels along the interstates of the northeast.
upperWETside: A quick look at your itinerary suggests that the show is scheduled to be taking place in New Orleans at the same time as it unfolds in Red Bank. Is that a scheduling glitch, or have you somehow tapped into Zygonian technology to appear in two places at once?
JASON NEULANDER: We actually have two touring companies of eight people — on the 28th, I’m going to be one of the actors in ‘Cast B’ for the show that we’re doing down in New Orleans — so, even though I’m looking forward to coming home to New Jersey at some point, it’ll have to be at a later date. We have a talented cast coming to the Count Basie Theatre, so the show’s in good hands — and there’s no reason for me to be there at every performance by this point in the show’s evolution!
Speaking of the evolutionary process, how are things progressing with Book Two of the INTERGALACTIC saga? I’m aware that you have a big premiere coming up in Austin this summer, but will it be ready to take out on the road at any point during 2012?
We did a workshop of the second part in February…I’m a huge believer in audience feedback and the development process, and I’m hopeful that we’re in a place where we’ll get into final polishing of the script.
Since you’re working with these synchronized, projected images, is the script pretty much locked into place by the time you take these shows to the theaters? Or are you able to allow your actors a little bit of wiggle room?
You can actually have the option of changing dialogue when you’re speaking over still images of the characters’ faces, so there’s a little bit of flexibility there. But our actors have fully memorized their lines, which allows them to work off one another more effectively, and helps them to connect with the audience in a way that they wouldn’t do if they were holding a script in front of their faces. One actor gets to play a total of nine different characters — at one point he’s playing three of them at once; talking to himself in these distinct character voices.
You know, when we started doing these radio plays at a coffeehouse in downtown Austin, we were doing it as a lark — but the show has really taken off since we added the comic art projections in the last year. So we had many years in which to hone the script before we worked with Tim Doyle — we knew what was working by that point.
So even though there’s still a slightly campy, playful edge to the material, adding the live comic book aspect really helped this thing get taken seriously…
We got together with Tim to produce a comic book series from the original story, and we started presenting performances of it around Austin. When we added the artwork, it opened us up to a whole new level of press attention, new venues, new audiences…and a whole different level of technical issues. There are 1,250 slides in the show that we’re doing now; all of them hand-cued…we have to be mindful now of things like how to transition between the individual images.
At heart it’s still a willfully retro piece of entertainment, which you’ve even set in the 1930s. Do you find it resonating with the modern mainstream audience, particularly kids who’ve grown up with flashier stuff at their fingertips than a live radio play?
We’re a bunch of fanboys and fangirls who grew up on things like Star Wars and Raiders. The energy of the old serials and science fiction is something that’s still very contemporary…we wanted to create something that works cross-generationally.
It’s a totally family friendly show. The younger audience members might miss a few of the period references — we mention the Hindenburgh, and Mae West makes an appearance — but we’ve seen the show win over crowds who started off with the attitude that they weren’t going to be impressed.
A lot of what makes it work is the writing, and the way that the actors perform the script. It’s full of surprises, funny, and something that the audience can really connect with. When we first started writing, we took a lot of our inspiration not from science fiction, but from old movies like His Girl Friday and It Happened One Night. That kind of fast-paced, wisecracking dialogue that was so great.
Something that was lacking in, say, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow..
Yeah, you know, when I first learned about that Jude Law movie, not only was I bothered that they stole our basic idea, but I was convinced that it would be the death of our project. But I had to go see it, and when I did it turned out to be executed so terribly that there was no reason for us to worry. Intergalactic Nemesis has only gotten stronger, and we’re loving what we’re doing — in some cases even making a living out of what we love.
Tickets ($19.50 – $29.50) for the 8 pm performance of The Intergalactic Nemesis Book One: Target Earth can be purchased from the Basie box office right — and keep watching the skies for updates on the impending arrival of Book Two: Robot Planet Rising.