I Saw It On The Radio: Scena Recreates Orson Welles’ The War Of The Worlds

By: Nov. 15, 2010
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               I wrote a couple of weeks back about the funky Atlas District/H Street scene in Washington, and promised I'd be back.  I have done (as the British would say), this time at another house, the H Street Playhouse, where the Scena Theatre is holding forth with a recreation of the Orson Welles/Howard Koch Halloween Eve 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds.

               Welles, as is widely known, spearheaded the celebrated Mercury Theater of the Air broadcasts (shortly thereafter The Campbell [Soup] Playhouse) from 1938 to 1940.  And the best-remembered performance was Mercury's adaptation of H.G. Welles' The War of the Worlds.  There are a lot of urban legends and some debate about the extent to which the radio play actually deceived listeners into believing that the world was under attack by Martians, but very little disagreement about the fact that it was a scary bit of Halloween entertainment.

               That broadcast has been recreated and "opened up" a bit by Scena, under the direction of Robert McNamara, the Artistic Director of that much-acclaimed, internationally-focused company.  The "opening up" takes the form of showing the broadcast being created in the studio, and simultaneously being reacted to by a chorus of listeners from across the country.  In my estimation, the first tactic works, the second does not.

               The broadcasting studio experience is great fun.  As conceived by McNamara, the studio (set nicely done by Michael Stepowany) is a factory floor where every element (including Welles himself) arrives at the microphone just in time, yanked into the production from all sorts of preoccupations, whether they be the arrival of donuts, taking telephone calls, or arguing amongst each other, while the sound effects man, off in his own little world, is rapturously preparing his next surprise.  The chaos around the microphones completely belies the smoothness of the product going out over the airwaves.  Welles, standing on a podium, presides over the process with a cocky young man's assurance that this just-in-time madness will work.  Regen Wilson does a fine job, not only reproducing the diction and sonorities of the famous Welles voice, but also conveying Welles' persona.

               The actors in Welles' troupe were obviously themselves having a good time sending up the radio conventions of the day, in a radio script that called for them to impersonate radio announcers, talking-head professors (the phrase "talking head" is an artifact of later technology, but the use of them obviously was current in 1938), generals, and authority figures.  (The breakdown of civilization under the Martian onslaught is crystallized in the fact that the "broadcast" within the broadcast moves down the inteviewee food chain to a half-crazed survivalist by the end.)  Theo Hadjimichael, Steve Lebens, Robert Sheire, Lee Ordeman, David Paglin, Chris Mrozowski and John Tweel are excellent portraying a crew of actors gleefully sending up and subverting the serious business of radio.

               Less fun are the chorus of listeners, five women in period garb spread out around the auditorium, who break in periodically to recount their growing alarm and/or panic as they are sucked into the terrors of Welles' little show.  Their outbursts seem to have only a minimal synchronization with the events of the radio play, and at one point (I thought) really overreached, with a comment designed to link the hysteria whipped up by the show to the madness of the Holocaust, already in its Early Stages in Europe.

               Efforts (exemplified by the use of the chorus) to find a deeper meaning to the War of the Worlds broadcast have always struck me as suspect.  Welles himself ended the transmission with comments that gave a truer perspective: "The War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be, the Mercury Radio Theatre's own version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying boo."

               If there was anything more serious than that about the show, it was the mockery of the authoritative status of radio in forming the public's fund of knowledge, or what it deemed to be knowledge.  The Mercury Theatre gang had been handed the tools to create on-air experiences, and understood how susceptible the medium was to fakery.  The cautionary lesson, if any, was that announcers and talking head professors and generals could be faked, and what one thought one learned from them could be wrong.

               But to enjoy this show, there's no need to subscribe to urban legends about the broadcast's impact or take seriously the alleged implications of the fun.  No national infrastructure or civilization was wrecked in making the original or the recreation.  And Scena, and its H Street setting, are well worth getting to know.

               The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles & Howard Koch, at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE, Washington, DC 20002, through November 28. 703-684-7990. Tickets $25-$33.  www.ScenaTheater.org.   Family-friendly production.


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