Those Pesky Martians

In 1938, Orson Welles directed a radio theatre adaptation of H.G. Wells's classic sci-fi horror novel The War of the Worlds. Some people turned on their radios in the middle of the broadcast, mistook the story for an actual news report on an actual, present, invasion of hostile Martians, and panicked. It seems silly, until you see, or, rather, hear, award-winning New York performance art company Radiotheatre's newest adaptation of The War of the Worlds, written and directed by Radiotheatre's chief innovator Dan Bianchi. The voice of the newscaster, reporting, he says, from the site of the Martian touchdown in Port Jefferson, Long Island, sounds hauntingly like an actual 1930s radio journalist. The sound effects easily suggest visuals, and the story is as horrific as in the original.

Radiotheatre's signature performance style -- on-book readings accompanied by vividly evocative, masterfully layered sounds effects and rousing, movie-score instrumental music -- makes the piece emotionally engaging and viscerally chilling while appearing a blatant theatrical illusion.

While communicating what all the fuss was about back in 1938, this adaptation also incorporates some distinctly modern, specifically post-9-11 touches. Its main concern is not how the humans resist the aliens as how the horror of murderous invasion changes them, causing widespread panic and making the nameless, Everyman hero, voiced by Frank Zilinyi, do something that, before the landing, would have seemed unthinkable. Part of Radiotheatre's HG Wells Science Fiction Theatre Festival, The War of the Worlds plays at 59E59 Theatres in repertoire with three other Radiotheatre pieces.

The cast wears a uniform of nondescript black clothes, and the set is almost as noncommunicative: a backlit sign that says "Radiotheatre," a pile of pseudo-antique travel trunks, a few portable flashing lights, and, enshrined on top of one of the trunks, a small photo of Orson Welles. The sound effects, on the other hand, are complex, paramount, and perfect. The Martians' mechanical walking "tripods" tramp into and out of earshot, their sinister machinery whirring, squeaking, and shrieking. Our hero runs through muck, cracks open creaky wooden doors, and scurries around his hiding places. Pounding music heightens the adrenaline rush and signals the approach of the dangerous Martians, and dangerously panicked people. Kinder music underscores the return of daylight, peace, and hope.

The large ensemble bring several distinct human characters to life. Supporting Zilinyi are Peter Iasillo as a Martian-shocked soldier who fantasises about a resistance movement based on the behaviour of New York City's rat population; Elizabeth Burke as the hero's rather naive wife; Cash Tilton as an ineffectual Senator; and Patrick O'Connor as an eccentric medical researcher.

Most compelling is the versatile R. Patrick Alberty, double-cast as the lone radio journalist who keeps reporting even when he fears he is the last human alive and an obnoxious minister who can't decide if the Martian's bright death ray is Satan or a vengeful yet radiant God.

Comparisons with the recent War of the Worlds film, starring Tom Cruise, are inevitable. The play engages with the issues of psychology, philosophy, and ethics that Wells incorporated into his tale; issues that the movie completely ignores.

Radiotheatre's The War of the Worlds concludes with an epilogue that alludes strongly to the world of the original broadcast, and the threat of imminent war that, in 1938, was anything but fantasy. This play should appeal to a range of audience: fans of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and American cultural history, but also anyone for whom daydreams and nightmares prove engrossing pieces of theatre.

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