Theater Review: How Do You Improve One of the Worst Movies Ever Made?

A movie as cringe-worthy as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians just begs to be spoofed. The more you think about it, however, the more obvious it becomes that no spoof could ever come close to topping the horrible dialogue, wooden acting, and bizarre plot of the 1964 sci-fi schlockfest, widely considered to be one of the worst movies ever made. Luckily for audiences, writer and director Andi Allen doesn’t even try to improve on the film with her theatrical adaptation, choosing instead to lovingly embrace and even heighten the wacky and terrible and silly.

Level Ground Arts premiered Santa Claus vs. the Martians to generally positive reviews in 2010. Now it’s back with a “2.0” version, retaining a handful of the original cast members and inviting new ones to tap into their inner alien for what is—mostly—a weirdly hilarious production.

The kids of Mars are depressed, having never enjoyed a childhood, played with a toy, or even laughed. They watch Earth programs on an intergalactic television and see Santa Claus readying for Christmas, which gives the parents (led by a wonderfully deadpan Billy Betsill) the idea to kidnap St. Nick so he can spread jolliness and joy around the Third Rock. While on Earth, the Martians abduct human siblings Billy and Betty Foster to help locate the real Santa, since there are imposters ringing bells on every corner.

Voldar (Dan Schmoker, sporting a moustache any hipster or silent film villain would envy) strongly disagrees with the plan, thinking that the introduction of Santa, imagination, and fun will lead to the disintegration of Martian race. He repeatedly attempts to kill Santa and the human children and tampers with the toy-making machine to foil the grand Christmas plan.

When everyone onstage is upping the camp factor, the results are hysterical. Odd muttered asides, quirky facial expressions and body movements, bits of stage business that make you look twice—these important factors add up. But when a joke falls flat or the timing drags, the show’s shiny tinfoil veneer starts to wear thin.

Shoehorned pop culture references (did we really need to bring “Gangnam Style” into this?) and moments of awkward timing make the show at times seem like an overly long SNL skit. An extraneous intermission kills the comic momentum, stretching what could have been a tight hour and then some to 90 minutes.

Returning in the role of Betty, Alexis Nabors is the show’s standout. From the distracted fidgeting to spot-on fake giggles, her fully realized interpretation taps into what made the film so inadvertently comical. Michael B. Moore, in a bit of inspired drag casting as the curvaceous and boozy Mrs. Claus, also delivers a side-splitting performance. Taking what could have been a throwaway role, he makes every moment onstage—even if it’s only a few seconds—count.

Andi Allen’s resourceful set supports the show’s kitschy spirit: spray-painted Solo cups and mini Etch-a-Sketches comprise the spaceship’s control board, and yards of air duct hosing get put to good use. Ande Bewley’s costumes and props echo the cheesy attitude, while Nabors’ excellent makeup design shows that genuine thought was put into even the smallest of details.

At any moment during Santa Claus vs. the Martians, you might find yourself wondering what the hell is going on. But chances are you’ll probably be laughing while you try to figure it out.

Photo courtesy of Level Ground Arts