War of the Worlds by Howard Koch. Directed by Tony Simotes.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I can offer some conjectural opinions..."
On October 30, 1938 Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater of the Air performed a new "smart" adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, The War of the Worlds. What made it smart was that the scriptwriter Howard Koch had crafted a show that sounded like legitimate news bulletins and reportage before one character suddenly took over the narrative and told the story through to the end. What made it really smart - smart as in hurt - was that nearly half the nation tuned in late and didn’t know they were hearing a play and they bought into the story, leaving it before the drama became a monodrama for Welles. Millions of Americans believed that Martians had landed outside the quaint and sleepy little town of Grovers Mill, New Jersey, and were taking down our country from their cylinder-shaped spacecraft.
Riots ensued. People went crazy. It would take a long time for the 48 states to recover from the trauma of an attack on our soil from outside the known world. By the time the nation was over its defeat, along came Pearl Harbor and the show seemed to be a prophetic glance into the future.
Now Shakespeare and Company is presenting what is touted as Howard Koch’s play about the play. In this new suspense comedy-drama a company of actors come together to ultimately produce this mind-shattering radio-play. These, however, are not Welles and company. That is something you have to know before you go. These are six actors on some other show doing their thing according to their scripts.
The other thing you need to know is that you won’t really get the effect of this broadcast. Six actors can play a great many people but the can never, at least as written, understand the general alarm, the overwhelming panic that ensued. That cannot be conveyed in this form or format. That would be another play.
What you will come away with is an understanding about the art of listening. There are local jokes galore in the first half of the show and you don’t want to miss them. There is a version of the actual radio show’s opening moments and that is something you need to know is just part of the show. After all, the studio audience had to be brought along into the joke or conceit of the Koch original script. There was no retelling of the story. The short news items that interrupted the show in progress are given much as they were in 1938 and that slow and realistic warm-up is what made this show so dynamic, so effective.
Simotes has done a fine job of creating the working atmosphere of a radio studio and his actors are so used to working with a style of production that it is almost as though we have stepped back in time to 1938. There is a bustle and a swiftness that are all business here and that works beautifully. The women wear hats, and gloves, the men are dapper with their vests and watch chains and coats thrown over shoulders. Simotes has a knack for this era and he plays all of his trump-cards perfectly.
The cast is equal to the task of perfect representation. Jonathan Croy is a perfectly wonderful Broadway and Film Star (all capitalized for strengths) who plays a recurring role on the mystery/soap opera that the show presents. As the show swings into the Welles event Croy takes on a variety of personae that allow him full range for his abilities. He is crisp and dry, ever urbane as he swaggers into position to play a farmer from New Jersey. He is amply enthralling as an air force pilot. Not the usual broad comic in any of his roles here, Croy shows many sides of his interpretive skills and all to the good.
Josh Aaron McCabe is urbane and slick as the actor who can also provide his own sound effects mid-speech. Many of the more treasured moments in this show belong to him. As the narrator/Orson Welles character of Professor Pierson he brings that very special radio style into play when a tale-teller takes the microphone. As the host of the Jack Holloway Show, David Joseph brings many talents into the mix. He sings. Check. He is suave and handsome. Check. He is a matinee idol type. Check. He can improvise or seem to be just natural. Check. Sometimes he moved just south of reality when his style slipped into today rather than 1938, but these were small things and in the long run didn’t make any difference to the enterprise.
Elizabeth Aspen lieder and Dana Harrison play a Vaudeville "Sister" Act who can sing, tapdance and act. Aspen lieder usually emerges the top player in these shows and she manages to impress once again as Dafla who plays Carla. Her work throughout the show within a show and the show that frames the show is excellent, amusing and even a tad touching when Carla faces the monsters from the spaceship. Harrison plays a much broader range of characters and she makes them all extremely real. Her use of voice manipulation and accents lends a remarkable credence to Melinda’s radio abilities. Harrison, really, is one of the best actors in this piece as she takes on transformation after transformation without batting a lacquered eyelash.
Much of the credit for the believability of this play goes to Scott Renzoni as Radio show host Bobby Ramiro. He literally does everything except lead the show’s band and we suspect that somehow he is doing that as well. I don’t think you will ever forget his Pyramus in this show, that’s for certain. Croy’s Thisbe may be inane but Renzoni’s young lover tops him every time. If this show doesn’t improve the possibilities for this actor with this company nothing ever will. He is capable, I fear, of performing this entire play as a one-man piece and we’d never know the difference.
The actors are given a marvelous shoulder up by Michael Pfeiffer playing the Foley Artist "Max Michaels." It’s always wonderful to watch a sound man make his noises and know how much he means to the success of a show of this sort. Sadly he isn’t out front somewhere adjusting a few of the sound levels and balancing things a bit more. Get this man a good assistant!
Patrick Brennan’s set is spectacular and Kara D. Midlam’s costumes are absolutely right on the money. Stephen Ball does some odd things with lights but somehow they work out just fine. Bill Barclay has done everything he could do with period harmonies as the singing coach for people who just don’t sing all that well.
War of the Worlds is not the usual October fare for the company. Their horror shows, or their Holmes plays have always been chilling and there is some of that here, but the lightness of it and the radio show itself make this a different sort of evening. Simotes doesn’t allow a few things, like the dropping of finished pages, which made radio so much fun to do, but he has provided his faithful audiences with a unique opportunity to drop into an environment that has pretty much ceased to exist today. That alone might be creepy enough to inspire the loyal, and even the newcomers, to turn up and enjoy the fine work this company is doing in every performance.
Josh Aaron McCabe as Clark Alden as Professor Pierson; photo: Kevin Sprague
Elizabeth Aspenlieder, David Joseph, Dana Harrison as radio stars; photo: Kevin Sprague
Scott Renzoni as Bobby Ramiro with Michael Pfeiffer; photo: Kevin Sprague
War of the Worlds plays at the Elayne P. Bernstein theater at Shakespeare and Company at 70 Walker Street in Lenox, MA through November 6. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-637-3353.