ANDREW BURASHKO (2011) - Page 1
Preamble & Play Review
2011 marks the 100th centenary of Bernard Herrmann’s birthday, and Toronto’s Art of Time Ensemble recently mounted a live performance of Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast version of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
That alone sounds like a handful, because it would have to include a live band, live foley artist, and contemporary actors recreating the original cast as they performed Howard Koch’s script for eager audiences – some of whom knew the drama was mockumentary of Martians invading Earth, plus a small minority who believed little green men were in fact landing in the United States for real.
Of the select hysterical masses, some members apparently believed the Martian sightings were actually Nazis infiltrating America (it was 1938, after all). That frankly makes those paranoid people look even more silly, because somehow in their little brains existed a short circuited, quick witted judgment call: that little green men in crashed metal saucers were actually Nazis, dressed in some new type of aircraft suits; and that the saucers were super-deadly weapons of mass destruction capable of shooting death rays.
When Welles was informed by CBS bigwigs that a few noodle-heads were convinced the Earth was being invaded by aliens, he chose to continue without any station identification / special caveat announcement for listeners until the play’s concluding soliloquy - a move one could argue was Welles being an artistic prima donna, desiring to maintain the integrity of his theatrical troupe; or a crafty mind who felt a little infamy wasn’t bad for ratings, for juicy P.R., and his own ego.
What better etching to have on one’s tombstone than ‘He made people believe in Martians’ ?
Certainly the reams of news reports that followed made Welles a national / international star, paving his way to glide on to Hollywood.
The original broadcast was in fact recorded on a transcription disc (like this one), and over the years has been a available on every kind of media format, although I’ve always felt the original discs needed some speed adjustments, as everything seemed to sound a wee bit too fast.
The estate of Howard Koch still owns the original script, and every so often someone remounts a live version of what may be the most famous radio show in history. That alone makes that 72 year old production a perfect intro into the world of dramatic radio, where the brain does part of the work in convincing the listener what the actors look like, where the scenes are occurring, and whether Martians are in fact real.
Unique to the Art of Time Ensemble’s production is the way it was mounted: you, the audience member are merely a fly on the wall of the very same CBS recording studio where Welles and his Mercury Theatre troupe arrive for another shift, slowly getting ready for another’s day’s work.
To recreate the events on stage, the stage rear was allotted to the live band, whereas up front to the left rested the foley artist and his array of odd metal objects that would create a farmer’s field, and sweeten ‘live news feeds’ from within an observatory, buildings in NYC where the rest of the invading aliens are swarming down, and a farmhouse where one man opines on Mankind’s future.
To the right was step-like Art Deco stage, upon which the actors could perform into the microphones. A large gap in the center stage allowed the actors to converge and vocalize an army on the march, an irritated general barking orders to his troop, and hysterical locals transfixed by the crashed Martian ship.
A clock was suspended from the ceiling, and would begin to tick from 8pm – 9pm, the same time slot during which the drama was performed; and a red ‘On the Air’ sign would glow, letting us know we had an hour of fun.
Nicholas Campbell (Da Vinci’s Inquest) represented the veteran radio actors that populated air waves as well as feature films, often performing narration like Paul Frees, who acted in the 1953 film version of War of the Worlds and provided that film’s narration with his magnificent voice. Campbell was the first person to enter the scene, picking up a fallen newspaper, checking the time, and reading a folded paper while occasionally taking sips from a pocket booze tin.
Once the show begins, Campbell’s actor removes his rumpled, folded mess of script pages, and at one point adjusts his fly because the job is simply that mundane. Don McKellar (Last Night) ostensibly plays Welles, the director and coordinator of the show, making sure everyone meets their cues, follows a few suggested tweaks.
‘Welles’ also maintains a close eye and ear on the musicians, making sure they start and cut out on time – the latter quite important, since the period songs are supposed to suggest a live ballroom that’s switched over to increasingly dire news briefs from Grover’s Hill, where the first Martian craft has crashed into the earth.
The play’s first half is faithful to the original drama, and the only major change has Campbell’s dramatic soliloquy being supported by actual score – absent in the original radio drama.
The musicians, which switch from chamber orchestra to period jazz band, performed wonderful arrangements of Herrmann’s music from “The Lonely,” a sad episode from the Twilight Zone where a stranded astronaut starts to fall in love with a female robotic companion he initially despised. The music is a statement on solitude and of an uncertain future, and Dan Paar’s arrangements (with beautiful bass clarinet) capture the emptiness Campbell’s actor feels as a lone survivor of humanity who contemplates his future, and soon finds he’s not completely alone.
McKellar’s Welles is more of a hint of the stentorian, mischievous icon, so that the actor can concentrate on being a ringleader among diverse creative fields in the ‘live’ studio. His best moments are the subtle exchanges among actors and the foley artist, but the audience never hears their words: it’s all pantomime to maintain the illusion of witnessing a moment in pop culture history.
John Gzowski performed his foley work live, and his character’s intro is actually quite clever. In addition to inspecting his own gallery of ‘instruments’ he also knocks over a hollowed shell casing, which is later used to evoke the sound of the trap door falling off the Martian craft onto the ground prior to the aliens’ appearance.
A Slinky toy, suspended and stretched between two poles, formed the alien death ray; a small electrical fan was a military fighter plane losing engine power as it tries to attack an alien craft; and a hung metal sheet was useful for generic crashes, booms, and bangs. There was also a phonograph, from which canned sound effects were spun.
It’s worth contrasting Burashko’s dramatic recreation with the partial attempt done for “The Night America Trembled,” a 1957 episode of Studio One that focuses on the mass-hysteria among select gullible listeners. Like the 2011 play, the 1957 teleplay has the actors gathering in the studio, and a Wellesian figure coordinating the musicians, actors, and foley artist - the latter also spinning canned effects between original sound effects.
And it’s also worth noting how many of the performers smoked like chimneys; in Burashko’s production, cigarettes were lit and smoked occasionally, and the grey residue gave the studio’s a ‘misty’ atmosphere.
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