The War of the Worlds Radio Show
Adapted by Howard W. Koch from the novel by H.G. Well
Directed by Sterling Pratt
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved
Radio scripts as live theatre can be tricky business. Specifically designed to be heard, and not seen, they present a challenge in building an accompanying visual dynamic for the audience. With vintage scripts from around the 1930’s this is most often accomplished by a period setting so that the cast are playing actors performing a radio play. The Alley Theatre takes something of that tack here, with fairly good results.
The evening opens with a Nero Wolfe script, and one of the more subtle jokes is that the corpulent gourmand detective is played by the trim and dapper Jon Aurelius, who lends the proper tone of dismissive arrogance to the character. Kenn Parks delivers a nice range of character voices revealing a thorough exposure to Warner Bros. product from the period (including Looney Tunes cartoons), and Rachel Caudel and Jacob Hall do nice work here as well. There is reasonable attempt at period dress and setting, with Mr. Parks doubling as Foley artist, but this piece, directed by Scott Davis, feels somewhat under-produced.
But it is only prelude to the main attraction, a reading of one of the most infamous radio programs in history: the Mercury Theater production of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, directed by Orson Welles. Broadcast live on October 30, 1938, the script updated the turn-of-the-century British tale to modern-day New Jersey with enough verisimilitude to scare the bejeesus out of east coast citizens and create a small panic. Even more incredible is that the show was only one hour in length.
Howard W. Koch’s script (reworked by producers John Houseman and Paul Stewart and undoubtedly tweaked by producer/director/performer Orson Welles) is an ingenious blend of documentary presentation and narrative drama, building momentum with care and convincing detail. Director Sterling Pratt displays fidelity to the original, only updating the musical performances that are “interrupted” by breaking news from Bernard Hermann’s orchestral dance music to solo violin and guitar played by cast member David O’Neal. Rebekah Dow, Dan O’ Neil, Alan Canon, and John Youngblood make up the ensemble, all playing multiple roles. Canon and Youngblood display the surest understanding of the clipped and succinct delivery characteristic of such programs, and O’Neil handles the “lead” role of Professor Richard Pearson with good energy and a touch of Welles’ grandiloquence, although his dialect was somewhat fluid.
Most importantly, Pratt captures the overall shift from casual indifference to urgency and dread. And when Mr. Youngblood intones the classic line, “2x2L calling CQ…2X2L calling CQ…is anybody there?” with his voice appropriately stripped of any and all hope; this production proves it has done fair justice to the material. Still, I wish they had not excised the final words spoken by Welles that night, framing the broadcast as Mercury Theater’s Halloween prank, the equivalent of, “…dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush and saying, ‘Boo!'”
The War of the Worlds Radio Show
September 24 – October 3, 2015
The Alley Theater
615 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.