Review: ‘War of the Worlds’ takes us, cringing and clapping, to 1938

Marshall McLuhan said famously that the medium is the message, meaning, in part, that the way a message is sent can be more important than the message itself. Radio is a powerful medium. Imaginations engage.

In 1938, when Orson Welles broadcast his radio play, an adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel, radio was new — and Welles aspired to greatness.

His “War of the Worlds,” performed by him and the Mercury Theatre on that dark October night, assured Welles’ permanent fame, but it would have assured my heart attack. Indeed, the publicity launched his career, and in 1941 he wrote, starred in, directed and produced one of the greatest American films ever, “Citizen Kane.”

We’ll never know if Welles intended to scare the listening nation with his play, detailing a ferocious Martian invasion. Regardless, the CBS radio show was a sustaining program and didn’t use commercial breaks. People tuning in that night, many of whom had been listening to another station and had missed Welles’ introduction about the work being fiction, assumed the worst. With tensions in Europe ever-present in people’s minds, many thought the radio play was, if not real, at least a covert warning of an imminent German threat.

Ivy Tech Student Productions’ “War of the Worlds” cleverly turns the radio show into a staged theatrical one. The Bloomington audience sees what might have been actually transpiring that 1938 evening in the CBS studio. Five versatile actors portray a variety of characters: announcers, a professor, a singer/pianist, dancers, military personnel, a farmer and Welles himself.

Paul Daily, artistic director of the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center, is a good Professor Pierson, an astronomer called in to assess news of orange explosions on Mars’ surface. “Nothing unusual at the moment,” he reports. That is changing.

At the play’s end, as Welles this time, he smugly informs us, “That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian. It’s Halloween.”

He handles his Mars-sized monologues with finesse.

Jared Smith is calm and reassuring as an announcer who has the difficult job of relaying increasingly bad news.

Meghan McKenzie is vivacious as another announcer. She also sings well and adds to the show’s limited levity.

Tory Gough, animated and charming, dances after one of the faked breaking-Mars-news reports. “In the meantime, we take you to the Hotel Martinet in Brooklyn, where Bobby Millette and his orchestra are offering a program of dance music,” says an announcer. Later, Gough sings “Amazing Grace,” but this time in a much drearier part of the story.

John Whikehart is a convincing Farmer Wilmuth, whose backyard is home to Martian invasion. “Yes, sir — while I was listening to the radio and kinda drowsin’, that professor fellow was talkin’ about Mars, so I was half dozin’ and half …” We feel his confusion as he tries to realize what has happened, or worse, is happening.

Jonathan Golembiecki’s direction transforms what could have been a line of radio actors standing in front of microphones into a fast-paced whirl of action. The actors sing, dance, roll on the floor and otherwise use the stage to its full capacity.

They also produce the sound effects, paramount in radio. An iron skillet, electric fan, sheet of something like cellophane and other assorted items wait on an upstage table. Throughout the story they are poked, stroked and shaken, producing knocks, hums and blasts. These “Foley” effects (named for the sound effects artist who developed the technique in the 1920s) are cogent — and remarkably simple — aides to the audience’s imaginations. We hear Martians flying above our heads, spaceship doors creaking open and close-range gunfire.

I wish the Foley production had been more visible; it would have been interesting to see exactly how the actors manipulated the different substances to achieve such believable sounds. Joel Watson is the sound producer and scares us appropriately.

Phil Male’s scene design is — is this possible? — cozy and creepy. Three cheery, colorful area rugs cushion the floor, and a comfortable-looking armchair sits next to an old-fashioned radio. It is easy to picture a family sitting around their own radio on that pre-Halloween night in 1938.

Lighting designer Brennen Edwards captures the power of blacklight to display eerie Martian messages scribbled on the walls directly behind our heads. Blinding flashes of green and white strobe lighting evoke imminent doom and are used in just the right amounts.

The Foley effects, lights, actors’ versatility, direction and, of course, original radio script (by Howard Koch) provide an entertainingly informative evening, this time in 2017, of radio theater.

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