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We Interrupt This Broadcast

by B.A. Nilsson on October 13, 2011

The War of the Worlds

The infamous 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds exists in at least two versions. There’s the broadcast itself, which took place at particular time when politics and technology combined to explode what was intended as a Halloween prank into a national panic. And then there’s the legacy of the event, which has inspired books, movies and a number of re-creations.

Nothing can bring back a moment when, as the war in Europe threatened our shores and radio was the only in-the-moment source of news, a population not yet inured to atomic-level destruction could believe that a Martian army had wiped out much of New Jersey. But our current obsession with terrorist threats gives an even more nostalgic glow to something as goofy as green men with heat rays.

Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre presented the former star of The Shadow in a variety of thoughtful adaptations of classic works. For this particular broadcast, he worked with future Casablanca scriptwriter Howard Koch to fashion an radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel that styled it as a series of breaking news events with such chilling vignettes as having a news commentator’s microphone go suddenly silent as a described threat got too close. Fans of radio know that no visual medium comes even remotely as close to goosing the imagination as can images meant for the ears alone. Unfortunately, with the demise of radio has also come the demise of creative listening. The stage offers something to look at, and Shakespeare & Company’s Halloween homage to the broadcast is as good a stage realization as you’re likely to get of this piece.

We’re treated to the entire Koch script, but it’s set in a 1930s radio studio and framed as part of an evening’s entertainment, thereby adding 30 minutes to the “War” hour. We’re in the studio audience of the Jack Holloway Show, complete with singers and dancers and more radio theater. The ads are, not-so-surprisingly, localized to the Lenox area, delivered with jokes and song even an impressive tap routine.

So deftly does the cast pay homage to old-time radio that it would be churlish to knock the few lapses in verisimilitude. So I won’t. There’s a high-energy progression from event to event, beginning with the company’s performance of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” itself paying tribute to a particular motion picture’s tribute to an image of rural radio.

Scott Renzoni (as Bobby Ramiro) leads a trivia quiz, hauling a volunteer from the audience who is given questions about 1930s movies. Don’t shy away from volunteering; the cast members are generous, particularly Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Dana Harrison, who wrangle the trivia answers.

The duo also perform as the Sweetwater Sisters, singing close harmony on “I’ll Fly Away” with Holloway himself (David Joseph). Jonathan Croy is the semi-pompous actor Lionel Harrison, who stars in a segment of the serial Ace Moran; American Hero, which also gives Josh Aaron McCabe (as Clark Alden) a chance to deliver an impressive range of sound effects.

The nonhuman sounds come from Max Michaels—in reality sound designer Michael Pfeiffer—who is pressed into onstage service for this event, brilliantly giving us an evocative ambience.

My biggest problem in appraising the War of the Worlds segment is my extreme familiarity with the original. If you share this, set it aside. It’s not Carl Phillips reporting from Grovers Mill, N.J.—it’s Carla (Aspenlieder), who is more than a voice. She’s a presence as the reportage opens into staged depictions of particular events.

Rather than interrupting a dance band, as did the original, this version interrupts a travesty of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s last act, itself paying too-faithful (too big, too silly) homage to Hugh Herbert and Joe E. Brown.

Welles’ Mercury Theatre stage productions of the 1930s made innovative use of light and sound, and Tony Simotes’ direction of this new War is similarly inventive in employing such effects to wipe out the countryside. By the time we’re down to a lone ham-radio operator pleading for an on-air response, the feeling of bleakness is complete.

Most of the actors play multiple parts throughout the piece, quickly and credibly changing those personas as would have been true in a radio studio. McCabe gets the plum Welles role of Professor Pierson, who narrates the final third of the piece as he wanders into a bleak Manhattan only to discover an unexpected Martian foe.

I like a Halloween haunted house as much as the next trick-or-treater, but you’ll find a different, equally enjoyable scare—with plenty of laughs—in this production.