The War of the Worlds
What: The War of the Worlds Virtual Screening
Where: Broadway on Demand streaming service
WHEN: 7:30pm Fri.-Sat., Oct. 30-31
Wednesday, October 28, 2020
To prepare for his role as a news reporter observing the destruction of mankind via an alien attack, actor Frank Readick listened, over and over, to a recording of Herbert Morrison’s radio report of the deadly Hindenburg disaster. Morrison had been on site when the airship went up in flames the prior year, and was broadcasting from the landing field at the time of the calamity.
This disturbing form of research came in handy when Readick joined director and narrator Orson Welles for a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ seminal science-fiction novel, The War of the Worlds, the day before Halloween, circa 1938.
The episode of the drama anthology series “The Mercury Theatre on the Air” would go down in history as one of the biggest scares of the century, as a number of listeners were unaware the news bulletins interrupting the “typical” evening of radio programming were actually part of the show. As they heard about explosions being observed on Mars and strange happenings on Earth, some believed that not only was an attack by Martians imminent—but it was also already taking place.
As reporter Carl Phillips, Readick did a bang-up job of convincing listeners he was on the scene in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, where an unusual object had landed on a nearby farm. As he breathlessly described what he was seeing come out of the cylindrical entity, the fear in his voice was palpable.
“Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake,” he intoned with growing fear. “Now it’s another one, and another one, and another one! They look like tentacles to me. I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather.
“But that face, it… Ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate. The monster or whatever it is can hardly move. It seems weighted down by… possibly gravity or something. The thing’s… rising up now, and the crowd falls back now. They’ve seen plenty.”
Soon after, Carl tells those who are tuned in that he’s seeing a jet of flame coming from the unidentified flying object, and it’s not long before the field has caught fire and the intrepid reporter is presumed to be dead—along with a whole lot of other people. What follows is martial law, the annihilation of New York City, and an apocalyptic ending.
When Oak Harbor’s Whidbey Playhouse revives The War of the Worlds at virtual screenings Fri.-Sat., Oct. 30-31, they’ll be doing so with the original script detailing the frightening tale of an extraterrestrial takeover. It will be similar to how Welles might have produced it, but with multiple cameras and a new crew of actors and technicians helping bring the fully rendered radio play to life.
While it’s been disputed that the original airing caused pandemonium among those who had missed the broadcast’s introduction—which made it clear what they were about to hear was a work of fiction—there’s no denying it was a masterful take on Wells’ original story, which sees humans rendered nearly obsolete by their Martian overlords.
Whether you listen to the 1938 broadcast or purchase a ticket to Whidbey Playhouse’s “Broadway on Demand” offering, sit back and imagine you’re hearing the story for the first time, and you believe it to be possible humanity is on the brink of extinction until the moment you hear the narrator’s final message.
“This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be,” he said, “the Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying ‘Boo!’”
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