Review: Old Murder House Theater Presents ALIENS ON ICE

     November 21, 2011

If you’re not familiar with the name, Old Murder House Theater is a group of Austin-based actors who turn big genre movies (mainly 80’s stuff, but there’s no hard-and-fast rule about that decade) into gloriously unhinged, wildly entertaining stage shows.  In the past, the OMHT guys have performed their versions of Die Hard, Home Alone, Robocop, and Jurassic Park onstage, and the results have never been anything less than impressive.  Their most recent adaptation took place this weekend, and—all hyperbole aside—it might have been the single greatest piece of live entertainment ever performed in front of a paying audience:  James Cameron’s 1986 classic, Aliens…on ice.   Read on for the review (and a whole bunch of footage), after the jump.

old-murder-house-theater-logoA few months ago, Austin’s Old Murder House Theater worked their particular brand of magic on Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop ( you can read more about that show here), and the results were extraordinary:  the OMHT guys managed to translate one of the biggest sci-fi epics of the 80’s into a hilarious, exciting, and—perhaps most surprisingly– respectful-to-the-source-material stage show, complete with explosions (fireworks), “Robocop-vision” sequences (which involved a bunch of green wires, a box, and no small amount of ingenuity), and car chases.  The results were incredible.

That Robocop: Live show happened to be my first Old Murder House Theater experience, but I’d been hearing about the guys for a good long while beforehand:  back during South By Southwest, the guys pulled off a live, stage-based version of Robert Zemeckis’ Back to The Future that I’d heard was absolutely brilliant, so when Robocop rolled around, I made a point to be there.  Here’s what I was saying immediately after seeing that show:

I couldn’t tell you why, but prior to the show, I’d expected Old Murder Theater’s Robocop to be a parody, something that mixed original dialogue with some of Robocop’s more popular catchphrases.  I was shocked to discover that, no, these guys were using the actual Robocop script (with some economical trimming, of course:  the show’s about an hour long, as it should be)…and by keeping the film’s biggest moments, cutting the scenes that aren’t enormously important to the plot, and utilizing some truly ingenious set, costume, and prop-design– all of which is as witty as it is impressive– Old Murder Theater create the most elusive of comedy-beasts:  a funny remake of a beloved thing (in this case, a late 80’s film) that never disrespects the source material in search of a laugh.  That ain’t the easy way to do this, but that’s precisely what they’ve done.  Consider me extremely impressed.

aliens-on-ice-image-1So, yeah, Robocop: Live made me an instant fan of the Old Murder House Theater guys.  After that performance, I was very interested in whatever their follow-up might be, and my curiosity was rewarded last month when the group’s next show was announced: an adaptation of James Cameron’s Aliens…on ice.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider that idea:  Aliens, on ice.  Aliens, as performed by a group of grown men on ice skates.  Hudson’s meltdown.  Newt’s doll.  The ever-beeping motion-tracker, alerting the Space Marines that a group of xenomorphs are closing in.  The “Get away from her, you bitch” scene.  The “Power Loader”.  All of these things brought to life using cardboard, duct tape, fireworks, and a seemingly bottomless well of creativity.  Aliens on Ice.

The mind reeled at the inherent possibilities of this show, but—as it turns out—the final product actually exceeded my wildest expectations: Old Murder House Theater’s Aliens on Ice wasn’t just the best Aliens-related passion project I’ve ever seen brought to life (that includes both of the Alien VS Predator movies), it was also one of the best stage shows I’ve ever attended.  Every one of Aliens’ big moments was preserved here, from the nightmarish dream sequence that opens Cameron’s film to the part at the end where Ripley, Newt, and Bishop almost get sucked into space along with the hissing Alien Queen.

aliens-on-ice-image-7During the entire show, all I could think was, “James Cameron would love this; it’s a shame he’s not here”.  Luckily, I managed to score footage from the best spot in the house (down on the ice, standing right next to the control panel the OMHT guys were using to work the sound, pyrotechnics, and various other effects that had been built into the show), and I sincerely hope that someone out there forwards these bits of footage along to James “Game-Changer” Cameron.   Something tells me he’d be enormously impressed with the heart-n-soul that went into Old Murder House Theater’s latest production.

It’s true that the footage I’ve got for you below is here primarily for your entertainment, but I’ve got a far more important reason for sharing these clips:  successfully describing just how incredible an Old Murder House Theater performance is can be a bit of a struggle.  Sure, I can explain that a group of guys fashioned a bunch of Alien costumes out of everyday household items.  Yeah, I can describe how funny the show was, or how respectful these shows are to their source material, or how ingenious some of the set design is.  I could go on.  But no amount of description could possibly capture the absolute joy these shows inspire in an audience, or how overwhelmingly creative the final product really is.  I’ve tried explaining exactly what Old Murder House Theater does to some of my friends, but I never feel like I’ve done the guys justice.

So, with that in mind, let’s check out some of this footage.  To start things off, here’s the opening scene from the production (note:  Old Murder House Theater performances last about an hour, so obviously some of each film’s script will be cut for the “live” version.  For the most part, though, every one of a film’s major beats will be found where it should be in the OMHT version).  As in Cameron’s film, Ripley wakes up—accompanied by her orange cat, Jonesy—only to discover that she’s been floating through space in Hypersleep for God-knows-how-many years.  Things all go according to Cameron’s plan…until the chestburster does an impromptu rendition of The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Got a Feeling”.

Next:  here’s the Space Marines coming out of Hypersleep and preparing to descend upon LB426, the lil’est mining colony on the galaxy.  You can see that the set design—a couple of walls with built in bar-lights, and not much else—is meant to work for just about every scene in the film:  steel walls, cold lighting.  Later in the show, these walls were flipped around, revealing a more biomechanical design to reflect the Aliens’ handiwork in the bowels of the LB426 mining colony.

Below, I’ve got the highlight of the entire Aliens on Ice production:  the Space Marines are waiting for the xenomorph onslaught to begin, huddling around the motion-tracker (which you may be able to hear ping’ing in the background) and getting more anxious by the minute.  You can’t really see it here—mainly because I’ve focused on the cast, and because the “wings” on either side of the “set” were too dark to film—but the “aliens” have skated onto the ice and are swirling around the sides of the “set”.  As the scene’s tension builds, the aliens skated closer and closer to the Marines, until—finally, after all that build up—the attack began.  As you’ll soon see, it’s completely unlike the alien-attack from Cameron’s film:  in OMHT’s version, the aliens perform the entirety of “Be Our Guest” from Disney’s Beauty and The Beast.  The crowd went absolutely apeshit during this sequence.  It was incredible.

And, finally (I’ve got tons of video, but we gotta keep this thing manageable), we’ve got the Alien Queen attack from the film’s conclusion.  Note Bishop spewing up…whatever it is that Bishop spits up in the movie (in the stage version, it’s just a jug of milk) and the Queen getting sucked into the vacuum of space.  This was a rousing end to an already-excellent show.

And that, my friends, was that.  The Old Murder House Theater guys—and their surprisingly extensive cast and crew (which included about half a dozen skaters who’d been hired to play the “aliens”)—came back out, thanked everyone for attending, and took a final bow.  At this, the audience tossed stuffed animals and roses out onto the ice (I could be mistaken, but I thought I saw at least one bra come flying out onto the ice in front of me).  Here’s that moment:

The group’s members—Sam Eidson, Byron Brown, Josh Jones, Nathan Sakulich, and Kirk Johnson—were across-the-board stellar in their roles, as they usually are.  From time to time, the script would call for one actor to play dual roles in the same scene, and the group seems to relish the challenge of such moments (for example, the scene wherein one actor—playing both “Hudson” and “Burke”, with one interrogating the other—was one of the show’s highlights).  While the atmosphere of an OMHT performance is always loose, funny, and a little chaotic, it’s clear that these guys take their performances seriously.  They’re gifted comic actors, yes, but one suspects that any of them could handle, say, a David Mamet script with similarly excellent results.

These guys have been performing together as Old Murder House Theater for years now (they got their start in college, at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia) and so the group’s chemistry is just as palpable as one would expect.  While watching one of these shows, it’s hard to imagine that these guys won’t end up doing some genuinely high-profile stuff in the years ahead:  talent this strong simply doesn’t go unrewarded for long.

Since moving the show to Austin, the crew generally holds performances at the Highball on South Lamar (the combination bowling alley/watering hole owned by Alamo Drafthouse owner Tim League), but they decided to branch out a bit for Aliens on Ice (well, obviously: the show wouldn’t have been possible in a location without an ice skating rink).  Seeing the guys perform at the Highball is never a bad thing, of course, but after seeing what the crew’s capable of when they’re not operating on a really, really small stage, I can’t help but keep my fingers crossed that they continue to seek out bigger venues for their shows.  Performing Aliens on Ice at this location was surely a bit more costly, production-wise, but the final product more than made up for it.

Austin is home to a whole bunch of film-related awesomeness.  You’ve got the Alamo Drafthouse (each of its multiple locations here are worth visiting), you’ve got South-by-Southwest, you’ve got Fantastic Fest every October.  There’s the Austin Film Festival, Master Pancake Theater, and the numerous Rolling Roadshow screenings that seem to take place all year long.  I moved to this city because of its love for (and constant celebration of) film, and I’ve never had a boring day here.  There have, in fact, been times when I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of cool events taking place in Austin at any given time.  But I’ll tell you this:  Old Murder House Theater’s performances are among my very favorite things to do in this town, and I strongly recommend that you make a point of attending one of their future shows if you’re ever in the area.

Special thanks to Old Murder House Theater’s Sam Eidson, the rest of the crew (all of whom performed admirably), the Chapparall Ice Skating Rink, and everyone else that contributed to this show’s success.  You can stay tuned for more on Old Murder House Theater—including footage from all of their future performances—as soon as more becomes available.  If you’re interested in seeing more of the group’s performances, you can check out their fan page at Facebook here.


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