David Esbjornson’s return to Phantom Theater has cast, crew, board members and friends in a state of heady excitement. He, on the other hand, eschews being placed on a pedestal because he’s a well-known director who has directed three Broadway shows and is in high demand by actors, writers and theaters all over the country. What is impressive is that he is as conscientious about directing “Alien” at Phantom this weekend as he is with plays by Edward Albee and Arthur Miller.
Esbjornson came to Phantom at the request of his friend Tracy Martin, who is the current artistic director of Phantom Theater, in 1988 to present his abstract show, “Air Brains.” This time he is working with Martin’s son, Lucas Bates, who adapted the film version of “Alien” to stage over the winter months. Esbjornson made it clear in an interview that he was coming “as a facilitator and helper of what is clearly a collective effort.” And, he added, “This should be Lucas’s moment.”
What he said he had to adjust to was realizing that “Lucas is a man, not a kid.” Bates was quickly initiated into the world of every professional writer as Esbjornson and some cast members met several times on Zoom to hash out the script, where everything from characterization to setting is scrutinized, not always a comfortable experience for the playwright. With Bates’ script in front of him, Esbjornson did what he always does: “I look at the arc of the narrative to determine if the story is coming through clearly. The play has to work for all the people in the story.” Esbjornson said that working on “Alien” was like being in a writers’ room, referring to the roomful of writers who collect to create television shows, yet always the credit goes to Bates.
“Alien” presented a particular challenge,” Esbjornson explained, “because it’s adapted from a film with a visual sensibility. And in the Phantom Barn, we have this huge visual narrative in a theater the size of a postage stamp.” He laughed. ‘We are doing a play about space -- and there is no space! What we had to do is make it into a parody. Embrace that we are going to be funny.”
Though the show feels spontaneous, with Esbjornson at the helm, and writer Jeanne Darst and actor David Sinaiko working alongside him, the end result will have Esbjornson’s indelible stamp on it. “It couldn’t work without all the prep work,” he said. “At the same time, it will be a success because we have a bunch of cool people hanging out and creating this show. That’s the nature of Phantom Theater, which I have always understood. There’s no way it can’t be funny rather than scary.”
Because of high demand for tickets, Phantom has added an additional show. “Alien” opens Friday night, August 6, at 8 and will run two shows on Saturday, August 7, the first at 7 p.m. and the second at 9 p.m. Tickets are on a first-come, first served basis, and donations are welcome. Go to www.phantomtheater.org for information, or call 496-5997.