In October of 1938, smack dab in the middle of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 12-year presidency, amid the sweeping public works programs he created, and during Hitler’s rise to power in the doomed Weimar Republic, a radio broadcast sparked a national panic.
Orson Welles’ “Mercury Theatre on the Air” presented a clearly fictional radio play: H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds,” as adapted by Howard Koch, which tells the story of an alien invasion. The initial broadcast created mass hysteria, as radio audiences tuned in and thought the invasion was happening in real time. But what’s often overlooked in the frequent breathless retellings of that mass hysteria is that Welles and company broadcast a timeless and moving script, which nevertheless presents a snapshot of the mood in pre-war America, and a perfect example of the kind of storytelling that can be done with a very particular artistic medium.
And The War of the Worlds is a fitting work for Kentucky Shakespeare, which is producing the piece this month in Louisville Public Media’s performance studio. Under Producing Artistic Director Matt Wallace and Associate Artistic Director Amy Attaway, the company relies on stellar acting, directing and dramaturgy to keep the works of Shakespeare approachable.
What works for Shakespeare’s plays works for this newer classic, and this “The War of the Worlds” lives and breathes, brought to life by Attaway and an ensemble featuring a sampling of Kentucky Shakespeare’s regulars, and a few other Louisville theater mainstays, including WFPL’s Laura Ellis, who moonlights as an actor and sound designer.
Radio plays like “The War of the Worlds” are often staged as theater, and sound design is one of the key components. The theatrical conceit is usually that the broadcast is happening in real time, as they occured back in the heyday of narrative drama on the radio. In the style of the cash-strapped productions of yesteryear, everyone in the small ensemble plays multiple roles. Ellis, who is also credited as sound designer, has a table full of vintage noise-making gadgets and tools. She uses them to create sounds such as footsteps, crickets and heat rays. This is a fairly standard practice for theatrically-staged radio plays, and watching the sound effects person is always a great part of the fun. It takes a quick and steady hand to manage the many gadgets.
By virtue of the radio format and the small confines of the Louisville Public Media performance studio, all the actors get to play more subtle characters than they do during Kentucky Shakespeare’s summer season in Central Park, while still heightening their diction and speech to create just slightly larger-than-life characters.
Leading the creation of the radio drama is Gregory Maupin as Orson Welles. In his Shakespearean roles, Maupin’s pronounced elocution is always recognizable, but here he takes on just a hint of Orson Welles’ famous baritone and pomp, giving a performance that will please fans of either Welles or Maupin.
Jon Huffman’s Professor Pierson is the narrator of the latter portion of the show. His description of a ruined and defeated New York is haunting, and his sparse vocals remind us here that he is a gifted film actor, as comfortable presenting minute human emotion as he is strutting on the big stage.
Abigail Maupin gets a generous portion of stage time as the announcer. By virtue of introducing “live reporting” from the scene of the alien landing, as well as reading a stream of telegrams and reports, she leads the audience through the complex actions being described, while still giving life and emotion to her announcer. The announcer stays professional as long as she can, but eventually drops all facade as the horror of the invasion continues. Before that happens, Maupin is able to inject a good bit of comedy into her role, especially early in the show when reports are sketchy and thin, and radio time is being shared with a number of musical guests. All of these musical guests are actually Gayle King, playing live piano in a number of styles.
It’s worth mentioning that King and Ellis also provide lovely pre-show music: a mix of old time hits, and newer works given the style and sheen of the 1930s. One suspects that Gregory and Abigail Maupin may fill in for a few evenings with their the ukulele-driven Prohibition-era duo, “Rannygazoo.”
The more intimate performances continued with Dathan Hooper, who showed perhaps the greatest range in contrasting characters, moving from a mumbling military communications officer to a hissing would-be conqueror.
Attaway’s production also adds in the events and excitement of the original broadcast, via blocking and unspoken interactions among the cast. The first such moment is somewhere around the halfway mark of the show’s 70-minute run time, when a frantic radio technician of some sort (the production’s actual stage manager Racheal Luther) frantically holds a hand-written sign up against the glass of the recording studio.
It’s great fun, and allows the actors to add an extra layer to their performances. They get to show off a bit, performing one set of emotions with their voices, and another with their non-verbal acting skills.
Attaway and her cast manage to present both this “play within a play” and the radio drama, offering fun and fear for the audience. But in crucial moments these added elements break the tension of the play, and keep “The War of the Worlds” from being quite as terrifying as it could be.
Personally, I want gut-wrenching horror whenever possible, and with the vocal talents here, I believe it was well within reach.
It seems likely that Attaway and company kept the frights at half power on purpose, hoping to host whole families of fans without sending the children home to have nightmares.
With staging “Titus Andronicus” for the past two years and this year’s radio play, it seems like Kentucky Shakespeare is looking for something analogous to Actors Theatre’s Dracula. Though bloody fun, Titus wasn’t quite the right fit for a yearly outing: it’s horrifically violent, and deals with a truly upsetting sexual assault. But with “The War of the Worlds’” combination of a timeless script, excellent performances, and joyful sense of nostalgia, Kentucky Shakespeare has hit on a formula that could have audiences returning year after year for a new favorite Halloween tradition.
“War of the Worlds” continues Thursdays through Sundays until October 28, at Louisville Public Media’s Performance Studio, 619 South Fourth Street. Thursday’s shows are at 7 p.m., with a double bill at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturdays. Sundays offer a 2 p.m. matinee. Tickets are $20, and seating is limited.
Editor’s note: Kentucky Shakespeare is renting the performance space from Louisville Public Media. LPM does not receive any portion of ticket sales and is not officially affiliated with the production.