PROVO — To lift off The Covey Center for the Arts’ Black Box Theater season, Artistic Director J. Scott Bronson enlisted the talents of Dave Hansen, a local playwright. They thought of doing the radio drama War of the Worlds, but it is only about an hour long. Instead, they decided to create a play about the events leading up to and during the original broadcast. Bronson gave the project over to Hansen, who wrote and directed this world premier production of War of the Worlds.
The original 1898 H. G. Wells War of the Worlds was a book written in the form of a journal of a man who lived before, during and after a Martian invasion. Orson Welles adapted his radio play to be performed as if the invasion was happening at that very moment. There was only a brief mention at the beginning of the show that it was a dramatization and then again a brief mention 40 minutes into it. Hansen’s version includes much of Welles’ infamous October 30, 1938 CBS Mercury Theatre of the Air’s production. Hansen’s version—like Welles’s—was written to entertain during this Halloween season of tricks and treats.
The reason so many people believed the original radio broadcast to be real, according to Hansen, may be due to the general sense of fear permeating the country. At that time there were invasions in Europe and rumors that America may be invaded by Germans. The legends of mass suicides and world-wide panic turned out to have been over-exaggerated due to press coverage after the radio play. One line in the play states, “We create art. It is not up to us how they interpret it.” There were those who did think Martians were invading America. A compilation of some of their stories is shared in this play. A farmer hides in a cellar and shoots his dog through the door when he scratches to get in. A geologist from Princeton searches the countryside near Grover’s Mill, New Jersey in search of the fallen meteor. Families pick up in the middle of the night and start driving away, not knowing where they are going, hoping to escape the Martians.
The players performed other parts including a radio broadcaster interrupting a musical number, an astronomer at Princeton, government officials and various broadcasters in the field. The performances the actors gave were very enjoyable, with most actors playing several roles. It must have been challenging to switch characters so quickly, but they did a great job.
Hansen splits the action from the live broadcast occurring on a platform at the rear wall of the theater and three areas in front of it. On the “broadcast” platform are several microphones on stands and a table set up with items used for sound effects. The scenes transition back and forth easily between the “broadcast” company, the producers, and the personal accounts of listeners of the broadcast. This is done quite effectively through the use of space and lighting.
When I found out that the play was based on the radio program, I was hoping to see it recreated including live sound effects. It has always fascinated me how old time radio shows could make an announcer seem far away using a tin can or clomp coconut shells on a table to simulate horse hooves. In this production, some live sound effects were performed, to my delight. I would have enjoyed seeing more of them. One sound effect of a bell ringing was created when an actor hit a glass cake plate lid with a stick. However, I felt the use of the reel to reel tape player to be out of period and distracting as was the use of modern microphones. Most people would totally accept these as dramatic elements. However, being a technical theater geek, I notice these things. Perhaps if they didn’t open the play with actors setting up the modern microphones it wouldn’t have been so obtrusive. The effort to use period clothing was effective especially in the women’s dresses, hats and accessories.
This production of War of the Worlds made for a very enjoyable evening with comedic and dramatic elements. At times I felt as if I was witnessing an actual radio play. It was fun to see into the lives of the people who made up the production and those who lived through it. The writing and directing talents of Dave Hansen are remarkable. Shows are already selling out, so get your tickets soon.