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One Hell of an Invasion: The War of The Worlds at Sage College, Review

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A New Interpretation of Orson Welles’ Infamous Radio Broadcast

The War of The Worlds at the Theatre Institute at Sage, Review

Nick Martiniano in The War of the Worlds at the Theatre Institute at Sage. Photo Courtesy Sage TheatreOn October 30, 1938, Orson Welles was responsible for scaring the hell out of anyone who tuned in to the The Mercury Theatre on the Air that night. Welles’ interpretation of H.G. Wells classic The War of the Worlds, was so real, so believable that it created a national panic and outrage. Adapted by Howard Koch, the radio broadcast is set in the present day (the not so distant future of 1939, to be exact), at a time when recovery from the Great Depression was slowly on the rise, as was the ominous foreboding of World War Two. Running for only 60 minutes, the radio drama was presented as a series of news bulletins that interrupted musical programming to depict the onslaught of Martian invaders.

Wells’ 1898 novel is a chilling and vivid first-person account of an unnamed protagonist’s experiences in England during a Martian invasion, where all hell breaks loose. It was so popular that it has never been out of print and has inspired several film versions (most notably the 1953 version by Byron Haskin and Steven Spielberg‘s 2005 interpretation), in addition to comic books, a concept album by Jeff Wayne, a TV series, and of course, theatre.

Yet, it is Welles’ version that is the most controversial. The program was unique in that it had no commercial breaks, with only the first station ID appearing at the 40-minute mark and once again at the end of the show. Anyone who missed the start of the show was probably led to believe that the program was, in fact, real. However, the depiction of the invasion was too horrific for some and caused, what many now believe to be overhyped panic and havoc; at the time, approximately six million people heard the program with roughly one million believing that it was real. National outrage followed in the immediate aftermath, as many listeners felt that the program and its execution was considered too upsetting. Welles, who was only 23 at the time, would become a household name.

As part of this year’s MoHu Arts Festival, a new interpretation of The War of the Worlds, was brought to life at the Theatre Institute at Sage College in Troy. In keeping with the 1930s setting, David Baecker‘s production recreates Koch’s original script with some unique visual embellishments, allowing for an imaginative and entertaining experience. Using the original radio show’s text, the show also adds an extra layer of fresh perspective by involving the use of video and rear projection to embellish the visual impact of the invasion—modernizing it to some degree, while not betraying the feel of the source material. No Martians are seen during the show, yet the vivid description of the creatures provide an ominous uncertainty of what one can’t see, making the experience more unnerving.

Kelci Fargnoli-Peterson in The War of the Worlds at the Theatre Institute at Sage. Photo Courtesy Sage TheatreThe show is highly inventive as it manages to successfully bring a horrific event to life with a bare-bones structure. There are no real sets to speak of, allowing for the most rudimentary elements to work to the benefit of the show.

Video plays an important part in the production, with the use of handheld cameras providing live black and white video feeds, accompanying action portrayed in silhouette projected onto a large screen. The use of video adds another element to the immediacy of a live broadcast. Commercial Television was in its infancy in 1939 and would’ve clearly come to fruition had World War Two not taken place, so in a world where radio served as the primary method for listeners to obtain information, the visual elements add a dramatic realism to the overall vibe of the show.

What also enhances the scope of the show is placing actors as listeners on both sides of the stage; in this case, a family plays cards while listening, and an elderly woman wakes up while the invasion part of the program is underway. This serves as a context for how the program was received by listeners; midway through the production, these characters disappear, to demonstrate the overwhelming fear that listeners experienced during the actual broadcast.

Of the ensemble cast, Brandon Hanson as the doomed reporter Carl Phillips, maintained an even tone while thrust into the center of an alien attack; despite the world going to hell around him, he manages to retain his cool and report the news. Kelci-Fargnoli-Peterson as one of the Radio Announcers (also doomed) has a defining moment on the studio rooftop, describing in explicit detail an account of the invading Martian army crossing the Hudson River and entering New York City, vaporizing everything within their sight. Nick Martiniano‘s brief portrayal of Orson Welles, gives insight to the influence he had over the production; appearing at the beginning and end of the show, first to establish the scene, and then to reassure listeners that the program was all done in the spirit of Halloween fun. Morgan Przekurat tackles the largest role as Professor Pierson (the role Welles played in the original broadcast), who doubts the possibility of life on Mars at first, eventually becoming a horrified survivor of the Martian onslaught; it is through Pierson’s first-person account that we learn how the Martians are eventually defeated.

This dramatization gives a new insight as to how the media can affect us as listeners and viewers. As crude as the technology of radio was back in the day, it was inventive and evolved as the major medium in which to gain information. Fiction gave the audience a manner of escapism and most evenings families would huddle around the radio to listen to their favorite shows, allowing them to visualize the many scenarios in the story line.

Kudos to everyone involved. This was a journey well worth taking.

Dave Bower and Monica Sirignano are Co-Publishers of The Free George. Photos Courtesy of The Theatre Institute at Sage.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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