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Making It Feel Credible

Review of War of the Worlds by Scott Keister of The Orange Curtain Review

Thanks for coming!

Perhaps the most notorious radio broadcast of all time, The Mercury Theater’s 1938 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds,” directed by and starring Orson Welles and written by Howard Koch, is as much known for the success of its artistic achievements as it is for the supposed nationwide panic it caused, all greatly exaggerated by the newsprint media anxious to discredit the upstart radio interlopers. Intending to mimic radio news broadcasts of the day, Welles went to pains to insure that music, sound effects and actors presented as realistically as possible a fictional Martian invasion of Earth. At least for the first half of the show, which is the part that instigated the so-called hysteria, which was really no more than thousands of confused listeners calling into police and radio stations to find out exactly what was really going on. The second half was another matter.

In presenting “The War of the Worlds” on stage as a performed radio play, which was seen last weekend at Brea’s Curtis Theatre, director Katie Chidester faced a challenge in how to make the play as gripping before a live audience as it was on radio eighty years ago. The major challenge being the second half, which is largely a monolog enacted by one survivor of the invasion, but also including a section that is a debate between this one survivor and one other. Chidester, to gripping effect, chooses to stage the radio performance as though it might actually be happening during a real invasion, drawing the audience into the false reality, which becomes a new reality of its own. By having her actors not just read a script into microphones, but act it out physically as well, the audience is sucked into the narrative. Even though we see this is a radio broadcast, we get the sense that the actors might actually believe in it. Then, as the Martian invaders begin the assault, spotlights begin waving around the audience—are they just outside the theater doors?

For the second half, the two actors debating their upcoming survival plans (Robert Tully and Angie Watson) step away from their mikes and come down closer to the audience, acting the roles as though they were in a devastated landscape, not a radio studio. And for that moment the radio play becomes a stage play, and one step closer to reality. And when finally there is a flash of exploding light circuitry, throwing the entire theater into darkness while the survivor recites the final deathly words of warning, one has to wonder if this wasn’t exactly how the more credulous listeners must have felt.

The U.S. was bearing witness to the early days of tensions in Europe, and it was feared that any day an announcement of war was to come. It is thought that many of the listeners who tuned in late to the broadcast, and thus missed the Mercury Theater introduction, believed they were hearing actual news reports, not of an invasion by a Martian army, but by a German one. Welles took advantage, perhaps not even consciously, of a pervading paranoia that gripped the nation. And in that regard, this presentation on stage is as relevant and creepifying now as it was in 1938.

Kudos to Chidester for so successfully and imaginatively enlarging the scope of the show, and for an excellent cast in making it all feel credible, which includes (in addition to those already mentioned) Christopher Gomez, Jami McCoy, Garry Hobday, Ana Fujimoto and Roxanne Westerlin. Props also to Heather Enriquez for costumes, Leah Ramillano for set design, Kristofer Kataoka for lights and James Paul for sound.

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