High school’s Alien production wins internet raves

There are those perennial stage works that are perfectly suited to be performed in high schools across the country every year: say, Our Town, The Crucible, Annie or The Wizard of Oz.

And now, to this canon, you might add Alien.

An image provided by Perfecto Cuervo shows Xavier Perez as the xenomorph in the North Bergen High School drama club production of Alien: The Play in North Bergen, N.J.
An image provided by Perfecto Cuervo shows Xavier Perez as the xenomorph in the North Bergen High School drama club production of Alien: The Play in North Bergen, N.J.  (PERFECTO CUERVO / New York Times)

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

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

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Both the film and the stage adaptation feature a nightmarish extraterrestrial designed by artist H.R. 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. Last summer, they started to plan a followup.

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.

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

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.

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.

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“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 Defendini, the play’s art director, oversaw the creation of exotic terrains and spaceship interiors, trying as best as possible to reproduce the esthetic 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,” Defendini said.

Though the original “Alien” movie is about to turn 40 years old, 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.

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

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!”