Few among us are unfamiliar with Orson Welles' radio drama War of the Worlds, an adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel that created mass panic (or as revisionist history has it, simple media-hyped hysteria). It was broadcast on Oct. 30, 1938, a time when the American public was ill at ease, with much of the planet on the brink of World War II. It became an unforgettable cultural moment that defined the power of technology, despite the overblown media coverage.
H.G. Wells wrote his story of an alien invasion in 1898, and it has since been made into seven films along with Welles' interpretation. THEATREdART and Fire Thieves Studio are now showing their unique "devised" version of the radio broadcast. It's not quite a radio drama, but an event constructed from the Welles work — Director Charles Redding uses audio from the radio play as a soundtrack for this dream factory.
From Redding's program notes:
"Devised performance is experimental theater," utilizing "movement, object work, intense focus, pantomime, dance, and other forms of non-verbal expression."
While Redding has an overall concept he's portraying here, the audience is to "feel free to interpret wildly" their War of the Worlds experience. The audience's interpretation is what really matters.
This is risky theater. There's not a single word spoken by the cast. The symbolism, the dancing, the images, the props are all open to interpretation.
"Experimental" seems an inadequate description. "Experiential" might be the better term.
Acting without speaking is difficult, but for this cast it seems natural. There is not a wasted movement, gesture or expression. The Musician (Stephanie Adams) plucks the strings of her violin while pulling the strings of her puppets. The Dancers (Alex Abundis and Ambrosia Feess-Armstrong) waltz around the disaster. The Astronomer (Avery Zaleski) creates a frightening alien, and The Widow (Joanne Koehler) works magic with fabrics. This silent dream is both beautiful and bizarre.
As Redding tells us, the audience is free to interpret the results. Here are a few of my thoughts.
1) The dream theme works beautifully with the Welles' radio play. The original radio drama was fiction, but some thought it was real. The devised version is a dream; it's realistic but not real.
2) Redding uses crutches as intended at times, but at other times the crutches are dance partners or weapons. It's a reminder; we all have our own emotional "crutches" to help us find stability in disorder.
3) Music can soothe us, but it also can distract us from danger.
Orson Welles' radio drama created panic and fear. THEATREdART recasts Welles' radio play as a Cubist artwork, deconstructing it and then reassembling it as a pensive, abstract dream rather than a nightmare.
War of the Worlds is not for everyone. If you just want to be entertained, look elsewhere. Theater isn't just for entertainment. Sometimes it's an indescribable yet rewarding experience.
This production is exactly that.