H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds might be the most popular science fiction story ever. The battle between aliens and puny earthlings has been produced so many times and in so many versions that it's hard to count. It hit the screen in 1953 in an Academy Award-winning Paramount movie, then was remade in 2005 by Steven Spielberg as an epic CGI prestidigitation, starring Tom Cruise with an annoyingly screechy performance by Dakota Fanning as his daughter. The alien machines with their deadly heat rays were winners in both.
But in the most legendary version of Wells' extraterrestrial invasion, we never saw aliens, their deadly rays, or civilization crumbling. We only heard it. That would be, of course, Orson Welles' infamous radio broadcast on Halloween eve, 1938. Presented through his own Mercury Theatre on the Air for CBS, his one-hour show (written by Howard Koch who would later co-write Casablanca) would become a cause celebre and later celebrated as one of the most famous radio broadcasts in history. It's still a marvel to hear today.
Using breathless news bulletins that interrupt a dance music program, the tension rises as an astronomer casually mentions explosions on Mars. Later a mysterious explosion is reported near Grovers Mill, New Jersey, then news reports from the site with interviews from a local farmer, and eye witness reports that detail the odd cylinder whose top unscrews to reveal creatures from outer space who look like wet leather. The militia is called out, but they are defenseless against the overwhelming power of the Martians who rampage toward New York City on gigantic tripods which spew poison gas and indiscriminately kill anyone in their path.
Employing all the radio tricks he knew – and Welles knew them all – the show is terrifyingly believable. No wonder it caused a mini panic among the listeners, and was reported in The New York Times the next day.
Although the show had an intermission that clearly stated that it was a CBS production, enough people believed in the invasion to abandon their homes and clog the highways. It never became the international panic that Welles would later claim, but there was enough concern for the FCC to investigate. Opposite the enormous popularity of The Chase and Sandborn Hour starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on NBC, Mercury Theatre on the Air had poor ratings. It was about to be canceled when War aired. After all the publicity, CBS extended Welles' contract.
To its credit, Classical Theatre doesn't use Koch's script but a new adaptation of Wells' original by Chris Iannacone; in its way a closer nod to the Paramount classic, though set in the Edwardian era, the time frame of the book. The crowd scenes, aliens, and tripods are projected shadow puppets, which add a nice fantasy touch to the proceedings. There are only four characters: hero George (a most believable Gabriel Regojo), wife Jane (a warm and sympathetic Callina Anderson), the Curate (Shanae'a Moore), and the paranoid Artillery Man (Jeff McMorrough, doing paranoia very well). You might ask, why is the Curate played by a woman? I don't know.
In succinct scenes, introduced by chapter headings from Wells' novel, such as “The Last Dinner,” “The Fight Begins,” “The Shape of Things to Come,” the story unfolds with clarity and momentum. Rogojo is memorable as the everyman caught in an impossible and frightful situation. His voice has a edge to it that makes him seem particularly vulnerable. George and Jane narrate the story, and curiously they sometimes do so in muffled and distant voice-over, which adds nothing to the telling. Since they address us directly why not keep doing it?
But the stars of the show are sound designer Jon Harvey and lighting designer/video editor Edgar Guajardo. What atmosphere they bring to this otherworldly tale. The play thrums and beeps and burrows under your skin. When we see an etching of a bombed out city, it's like Currier and Ives have seen the apocalypse. The background projections are indistinct and immensely creepy, accompanied by an equally chilling electric soundscape. Directed by Andrew Love, with evocative minimalist sets by James Thomas and war-worn costumes by Leah Smith, everything meshes, while the puppetry and sound ease us through some of the bumpier passages.
I suggest Classical schedule War for a Halloween treat. Welles did it, and look where it got him – an unprecedented three-picture deal at RKO with absolute final control. That Welles couldn't quite manage it in Hollywood wasn't H.G.'s fault.
The War of the Worlds continues through May 1 at 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 20; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; also 8 p.m. Monday April 2 (Industry Night) at Classical Theatre at The Deluxe Theater, 3303 Lyons. Proof of vaccination and masks required. For more information, call 713-963-9665 or visit classicaltheatre.org. $10-$25.