Review: 'War of the Worlds' brings Martian invasion to life in Toronto Special

Posted Oct 31, 2012 by Jeff Cottrill
It's easy for us to laugh at the panic that Orson Welles' “War of the Worlds” broadcast caused in 1938. We have an extra three-quarters of a century of media exposure. The Art Of Time Ensemble pulls off a tough job: making us feel the hoax's effect.
Nicholas Campbell  left  and Marc Bendavid in The Art of Time Ensemble s production of  The War of t...
Nicholas Campbell, left, and Marc Bendavid in The Art of Time Ensemble's production of "The War of the Worlds".
The Art of Time Ensemble
That's a valid reaction to the Toronto-based music collective's dramatic staging of the famed radio play, which reportedly fooled people across America into believing that hostile Martian invaders had touched down in New Jersey. On the surface, it's amusing to watch Welles (played by Seán Cullen) and his Mercury Theatre company put the show's fake news bulletins into action in a fabricated CBS studio. But if you close your eyes during the attack scenes, you can almost believe the invasion is real.
Art Of Time's The War of the Worlds, running at the Harbourfront Centre's Enwave Theatre until Sunday, is a full Martian mothership's worth of fun, not only for Welles enthusiasts but for lovers of classic cinema too. This is because the two-part show also includes the Ensemble's performance of Herrmannthology, a beautiful suite of excerpts from classic Bernard Herrmann movie scores, assembled by Dan Parr.
Performed by a nine-piece group under the baton of Art Of Time's Artistic Director, Andrew Burashko, Herrmannthology begins with the opening dirge from Welles' Citizen Kane and incorporates melodies from Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, Psycho and Vertigo, François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 and The Bride Wore Black, and other films such as Cape Fear and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Accompanying the music is a screened montage of movie clips, mixed live into cool visual patterns by filmmaker Tess Girard.
Herrmannthology mostly avoids the more obvious, familiar tunes – such as the Psycho violin screeches or the sweeping Vertigo love theme – blending music from eighteen films into a seamless suite that evokes the emotions Herrmann seemed to know intimately: fear, despair and romantic yearning. It's a little jarring to hear the Psycho score with a brass section (the original was performed on strings only), and Taxi Driver rates only a quick snippet, but the suite is a worthy tribute to one of film's greatest composers.
Since you can't travel back in time to witness the original, the show's reenactment of the War of the Worlds broadcast (for which Herrmann was the music director, hence the connection) is the best alternative. It's a largely authentic recreation of the atmosphere in a working 1930s radio studio, complete with a real-time clock, an “ON THE AIR” light, platforms with old-timey CBS microphones and on-set musicians conducted by Burashko. The script itself was officially penned by Anne Froelick and future Casablanca screenwriter Howard Koch, although you can't help feeling that Welles wielded a heavy editorial influence.
It opens with a realistic workaday feel, as the actors (Da Vinci's Inquest's Nicholas Campbell and The Border's Marc Bendavid) and musicians fidget, mutter and quietly rehearse lines while waiting for Welles to show up. Once he finally does, pipe in mouth, you get to see groundbreaking radio drama in action, along with hints that something's not right behind the scenes. At one point, Welles makes baffled hand signs to an offstage exec, then abruptly leaves, and returns a few minutes later, beaming a mischievous grin.
Much of the show's success comes from the work of John Gzowski, who uses a full library of Foley sound effects – a theremin, whistles, bells, scratchy recordings and lots of ordinary-looking junk – to simulate the sounds of a war against aliens. Even a stretched-out Slinky becomes frightening when it turns into the loud blast of a Martian ray gun.
There are a few choices to which Welles purists might object. Although Welles played the part of Professor Pierson in the original, Art Of Time inexplicably has Campbell play that part, while Cullen's Welles takes over William Alland's announcer role. And in the last third, Pierson's lengthy post-invasion monologue is accompanied by a new, Herrmannesque score by Parr, along with a spotlight on Campbell as he sits on the edge of a platform reading his lines. Though not authentic, it's theatrically effective, enhancing a section that might otherwise have seemed slow and talky onstage.
Cullen doesn't aim for a vocal or physical impersonation of Welles, but he does capture some of the twenty-three-year-old wunderkind's personality, with its paradoxical blend of overbearing genius and prank-loving schoolboy. Bendavid is good as he switches between various characters, including a generic 1930s formal radio host. All three players are billed in the show as “Actor”, implying that they're not supposed to represent the Mercury players literally (the original show had a cast of eleven).
Aside from a long-winded introduction by Burashko, The War of the Worlds is a complete delight that always amuses and fascinates the audience. It won't send you out panicking in the streets, of course. You're more likely to leave with a smile.
The War of the Worlds runs at the Enwave Theatre until Sunday.