The storied 1938 CBS Radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre on the Air allegedly created a panic by individuals who believed that the dramatization of a deadly invasion by Martians was real. That now famous Halloween week event helped establish the growing reputation of Orson Welles as a young theatrical prodigy. Scena Theatre opens the story up by dramatizing the production of the radio play and the reaction by a sampling of listeners.
The brilliant idea behind staging of the radio play is to present it as a series of news bulletins breaking into musical programming without commercial interruption. Radio announcers describe the events and conducting mock interviews with experts, eye witnesses, government officials, and military leaders.
This adaptation, written and directed by Robert McNamara, faces the challenge of how to tell the story of the broadcast in an interesting and entertaining way. McNamara and his artistic team make several smart choices, but ultimately have a hard time overcoming the staginess of the historical story and the increasingly less interesting source material.
War of the Worlds opens with a flourish as the audience is escorted into a 1930’s CBS radio studio complete with authentic microphones, easels, a sound effects table, and the classic “Stand By / On the Air” lighted sign. The setting is populated by a radio cast and select audience members in period dress. Set designer Michael Stepowany and costume designer Meg Holeva do a wonderful job helping the audience settle in to the time and place of the play.
As the broadcast begins, the cast has a fun time exaggerating radio broadcast tropes, speaking with resonant and sonorous voices as they bump into each other while fighting for space and dramatically reading from binders. Under the careful conducting of Orson Welles (Zach Roberts), the 13 member cast covers over 20 roles with the just the right touch of cheesy exaggerated drama about the arrival at Grovers Mill, New Jersey of aliens with “scientific knowledge far beyond our own.”
War of the Worlds
closes May 28, 2016
Details and tickets
To convey the reaction of the world listening to the broadcast, the story incorporates a chorus of five (Ellie Nicoll, Charlotte Akin, Jen Bevan, Amanda Forstrom, and Gary DuBreuil) scattered throughout the audience who describe their own reactions and stories from others as hysteria spead, causing folks to imagine seeing lights and smelling gases.
The actual radio play starts to drag in the final third. Watching the radio actors work (such as the work of the sound effects man portrayed by Mick McGuire) is at first entertaining, but soon becomes routine. Having the chorus their reactions in the past tense takes away any sense of suspense.
In addition, the play does not seem to add to the historical event. For example, the audience never gets to hear much about Orson Welles’ intent and reaction to the event, nor the aftermath of audience protests.
Scena Theatre gives War of the Worlds a colorful production with clever touches – a promising opening but the overall energy of the story dissipates well before the play concludes.
War of the Worlds
Running time: 1 hours 5 minutes (no intermission)
Rating of the show: 3
War of the Worlds created by Howard Koch & Orson Welles based upon the novel by H.G. Wells, adapted for the stage & directed by Robert McNamara. Featuring Zach Roberts, Jim Jorgenson, Doug Krehbel, Buck O’Leary, Kim Curtis, Mick McGuire, Steve Lebens, Brian McDermott, Gary DuBreuil, Ellie Nicoll, Charlotte Akin, Jen Bevan, & Amanda Forstrom. Set Design: Michael Stepowany. Costume Design: Meg Holeva. Lighting Design: Marianne Meadows. Sound Design: Denise Rose. Assistant Director: Anne Nottage. Stage Manager: Simone Baskerville. Assistant Stage Manager: Niew Bharyaguntra. Presented by Scena Theatre. Reviewed by Steven McKnight.