Review: ‘War of the Worlds’ at Scena Theatre

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Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds is infamous for having incited a mini UFO panic due to its vivid and realistic descriptions of a fictitious Martian invasion. The iconic actor and director Welles used techniques that were, at the time, groundbreaking: “interrupting” the musical interludes in a way that mimicked actual breaking news; using a variety of faked expert and government voices; playing coy about which parts were fiction and which were “true.” The so-real-I-thought-it-was-real! subterfuge has become enshrined in American media history. It is this famous radio broadcast that Scena Theatre explores in an original stage adaptation of Welles’ original 1938 radio broadcast, War of the Worlds.

Zach Roberts. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.
Zach Roberts. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

Written by Orson Welles and Howard Koch, and adapted for the stage by Robert McNamara (who also directs), War of the Worlds will play in D.C at the Atlas Performing Arts Center through May 28 until jet setting to Europe for the Prague Fringe Festival.

Given the ultra importance of portability for Fringe Festival shows, the set of War of the Worlds (by Set Designer Michael Stepowany) is mobile and minimalistic. A small platform sits in the center of what we are to believe is a CBS radio recording studio in 1938, on which Orson Welles (Zach Roberts) holds court and directs his fellow actors and technicians according to his singular vision for the sci-fi action drama. Scattered around the space are a few chairs and microphones, a typewriter, and radio equipment.

Zach Roberts, as Orson Welles himself, leads the band of merry men (and it is all men) in their On Air broadcast. Roberts nails Welles’ faux Continental elocution as well as his knack for gripping imagery. Some of the most captivating moments are when Roberts directs his various voice actors with great swooping arm gestures, sometimes even changing the script in the moment. The whole thing is very exciting, and Director Robert McNamara adds to the momentum by wisely moving his actors around with enough regularity that the tableau doesn’t become an ossified static image.

Aiding Roberts is a well-oiled ensemble who play Welles’ various producers, actors, and technicians. Jim Jorgensen, who recently won the gold medal in the Creeper Olympics as Detective Tupolski in Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman at Forum Theatre. Here, he is not quite as creepy (but close) as a CBS Radio suit and a few additional voices.

Brian McDermott does a good job as a workman like voice actor who adds an element of authenticity with his no-nonsense professional attitude. Buck O’Leary expands on this trend with a bespectacled gravitas. Kim Curtis gives some comic relief (and more voices). Mick McGuire helps complete the Golden Age of Radio vibe, appearing like a grizzled ole show biz vet on stage.

The lighting design by Marianne Meadows echoes the set’s minimalism by consisting mainly of flat white lights. The even light washes over the audience, where four actors are placed, as well as the main playing place. This created a pleasant sense of camaraderie between the audience and the actors, as though we too were participating in this fun bit of history.

Costume Designer Meg Holeva properly attires her Depression-Era cast, and Sound Designer Denise Rose effectively navigates a show where the audio is the subject of the play itself.

There is no doubt that the famous War of the Worlds 1938 event is intriguing at the least, and possibly quite prescient of our own Trumpean, truth-blurring times. In fact, given the remarkable power of the media in the 2016 Presidential election, not to mention the unprecedented role of social media in facilitating mass movements, Welles’ ingenuous broadcast of War of the Worlds seems very ripe for discussion indeed.

But discussing or “commenting” on Welles’ War of the Worlds is not something this production appears to have been as interested in as simply telling the story itself. For, with the exception of some input from radio “listeners” who are seated amongst the audience and pop up occasionally to offer their commentary, the show consists of mostly verbatim staging of the original 1938 broadcast. Undoubtedly, it is an exciting tale: both the story itself of Martians invading the mid Atlantic, and the stories of those thousands of listeners who actually took the tale seriously.

It was a smart move for Scena to give voice to some of the listeners of the radio program, because it offered a critical first step in giving the audience a background and context for the piece, as well as helping to explain what the larger impact of the radio prank was. For example, Charlotte Akin plays a member of the “Chorus” i.e. a listener of the radio program, who defiantly lifts her Bible as proof that the so-called eschatology of Mr. Orson Welles is a load of horse hockey.

Ellie Nicoll, Jen Bevan, Charlotte Akin, Amanda Forstrom, Jim Jorgensen, Zach Roberts, Kim Curtis, and Gary DuBreuil. Photo by Ja Yi Photography.
Ellie Nicoll, Jen Bevan, Charlotte Akin, Amanda Forstrom, Jim Jorgensen, Zach Roberts, Kim Curtis, and Gary DuBreuil. Photo by Ja Yi Photography.

Ellie Nicoll, meanwhile, is a vampy listener with a long gown, a blonde wig, and an ever-full martini glass who simply can’t decide whether the amazing tale of invasion she is hearing on the radio is true or not. These kinds of little insights into how people reacted to this groundbreaking program – not to mention how people inside of CBS felt about this controversial project – are what elevates Scena’s War of the Worlds from a mere parroting of the original story to an original comment on the significance of this infamous broadcast.

There were a few missed opportunities in the script that probably would have made the show more original and more compelling. For example, several characters mention the rise of Adolf Hitler in Europe, which is occurring at the same time as the “War of the Worlds” broadcast. In fact, the program itself notes that the time of the play is “on the eve of World War II”. This is a very intriguing notion: the connection between the falsified mass hysteria of “War of the Worlds” and the very real growing mass movements of Nazism and fascism in Europe. Why did so many Americans ignore Hitler and yet take the threat of Martian invasion very seriously? Or, to look at it another way: with America finally beginning to lift itself out of the Great Depression, were ordinary people “ready” to have another boogeyman? Was it easier to be afraid of aliens from outer space than of dictators and economic insecurity? It would be very interesting to explore some of these elements alongside what is already a crackerjack re telling of Welles’ famous tale.

War of the Worlds is notable in our collective pop culture consciousness because of how vividly it illustrates a fundamental feature of human nature: the tendency to panic just because someone else tells you to. While an ocean away Hitler was very effectively using the same tactics to build an army, Orson Welles was shocking and amazing his listeners with tales of spaceships and monsters.

In an age of Trumpean doublespeak, where the line between news and entertainment has never been more pixelated, the War of the Worlds mass prank bears repeating and expanding upon. While Scena’s War of the Worlds doesn’t provide quite enough context or insight to deliver a definitive comment on what Welles’ experiment means in our time, it’s a rat-a-tat science fiction jaunt that provides enough excitement and poetry to remind us why we loved the tale in the first place. Now we’ll all just have to go and dig a little bit deeper.

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.

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War of the Worlds plays through May 28 at Scena Theatre, performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H St. NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 Extension 2, or purchase them online.

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