An illustration by Henrique Alvim Corrêa from 1906.
In 1938 Orson Welles led his Mercury Theatre on the Air in a broadcast based on H.G. Well’s story of an alien invasion, War of the Worlds. Despite the show’s placement at Halloween and the cautionary announcements at the beginning, middle and end some frightened listeners called the station and others called the police. Newspapers and magazines, already threated by radio’s growing share of advertising, had a field day with the story and called it “The Panic Broadcast.” Later, a reluctant and defensive Welles did issue an apology.
Joe Landry’s adaptation at ISU’s Crossroads Repertory Theatre recreates the broadcast ten years later. I love radio drama and it was a real treat to see the stage of the Dreiser Theatre packed with the equipment to make all those wonderful imagination producing sounds. There were drums, whistles, rattles, fire arms, all manner of ratchets and even a small brass horn. Dave Harris was the personable emcee Freddie Filmore. He also appeared as a boyishly egotistical Orson Welles. Brett Olsen appeared as the original story’s author and Welle’s partner John Houseman. The rest of the cast playing a variety of parts and handling all those sound effects were Rayanna Bibbs Julie Dixon, Peighton Emmert, Josh Luna and Brandon Wentz.
As we entered the Dreiser Theatre, the cast was on stage casually gossiping, checking out props, and getting things ready. Dave Harris as the emcee welcomed us as a studio audience, warned us to be quiet at the ON AIR sign and to applaud loudly when the APPLAUSE sign was lighted. There was a bit of comedy with that balky APPLAUSE sign. Comedy was interspersed throughout the drama with mock ads from All American Brands. In one commercial a couple celebrated a wedding anniversary with a hot air balloon ride punctuated by her opportunity to try out a revolver on a bald eagle and his chance at a buffalo herd with a machine gun. In a later one, a family in their All American Brands bomb shelter enjoyed other items from the company’s six hundred page catalog. It’s a strong acting and singing cast and sometimes ads were enhanced with vocals.
The actual recreation of the original 1938 broadcast was dramatically packed with lots of those sound effects. It was fun to see the cast energetically creating them and from time to time I simply closed my eyes for that radio effect. The story of the country conquered by Martians with huge walking tanks and poison gas was spun out with passion. My attention did wander a bit during the extended second part with mostly narration and only a few of those neat sounds.
As the actually radio play came to an end, Joe Landry dramatized Orson Welle’s and John Hauseman’s response to the volley of calls that came into the station and to the police. Dave Harris was especially good as the self-centered Welles as was Brett Olson as the more pacific Houseman. Mixed with effect were videos of other dramatic moments that the media has brought us over the years and even right up to the present.
Chris Berchild directed the The War of the Worlds: The Panic Broadcast and was the sound and projection designer. Actor Brandon Wentz is credited with the “Foley” design. Clair Hummel designed the costumes with nice attention to period details like wide lapels, pants cuffs, shoulder pads, and of course seams on stockings.
The Crossroads Repertory Theatre’s production of War of the Worlds plays in rotating rep’ through July 27.
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At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker