Art of Time Ensemble’s The War of the Worlds
Starring Nicholas Campbell, Don McKellar and Marc Bendavid with foley artist John Gzowski
Directed and conducted by Andrew Burashko
Music composed and arranged by Don Parr
March 31 – April 3, 2011 @ Enwave Theatre
By Jen Handley
“And if someone rings your doorbell,” murmured Don McKellar to a mesmerized audience on Thursday night as The War of the Words came to a close, “Remember, it’s not Martians—it’s Hallowe’en.” And although the performance was utterly convincing, it pretty much proved that whimsical point. That’s because this War of the Worlds isn’t just a restaging of the classic Orson Welles Martian invasion radio play, it’s a staging of the staging of it. Art of Time’s production manages to tell the story not just of an alien invasion, but also of a bid for notoriety that was both an artistic and professional gamble, and, in doing so, the ensemble adds a second cast of heroes to the original play without changing a word.
Director Andrew Burashko begins the first half by briefly setting up the original airing. Orson Welles, then 23, was the head of the Mercury Theatre Company in New York. The company’s objective, according to Burashko, was to provide a wake-up call to a public that Welles believed to be far too trusting of what it heard from the media. Its members created a radio play in the format of a fake news cast whose content would be convincingly produced and outrageously impossible.
However The War of the Worlds isn’t the only classic re-contextualized here. The first half of the production is a new arrangement of some of the most famous film scores of Bernard Herrmann called Herrmanntology by composer Dan Parr.
This arrangement is set to a mash-up of the films from which Herrmann’s music is lifted, including Psycho, North by Northwest, and Citizen Kane, which complements the music without being a literal matching of iconic image to iconic theme.
Although the second half begins gradually after the simple set—a platform with period microphones and a foley space—is assembled, the tension mounts as actors Marc Bendavid and Nicholas Campbell make their way onstage, practice lines, and locate pencils. The venerable musicians from the first piece change into slouchy 1930’s garb, and Burashko pulls on a cigarette as he paces in front of the band. Foley John Gzowski carefully arranges his instruments, which range from a birdcall to a spring mysteriously stretched between two wires. A clock suspended above the stage ticks down the minutes to 9 PM, and just as an announcer gives the actors a thirty-second warn Orson Welles (played beautifully, but not impersonated, by McKellar) strides in, tosses his coat, and takes his place before the CBS microphone.
What follows is riveting storytelling from “reporter” and “expert” characters, who investigate the crash site of a sinister black capsule and discover that it contains hideous monsters (Gzowski simulates the movements of their bodies by crackling putty in front of the microphone) with terrible weapons and an evil plan. However we also get to watch the anatomy of the prank—scuffling and silent action invisible to the radio audience. We see Welles arguing with the bandleader, and an actor playing a young reporter smile wryly as his “death” is announced to the public. Bendavid and Campbell effortlessly switch between their many characters, and the final section of the play, in which an isolated survivor records what he thinks might be the last experiences of the human race, is poignant not only because of Campbell’s riveting performance, but the earnest attention McKellar and Bendavid’s characters pay the actor—after all, he carries the fate of the broadcast, not just humanity, in his hands.
If you get the chance to see this play, do. This is exactly what the reinterpretation of a classic piece of theatre should look like.