Theater marquees in the Cape Fear have been dimmed for months now. Numerous productions we see staged in a sole weekend have just vanished, due to the wide-reaching shadow of the COVID-19 outbreak. Local theatre companies have had to push back their seasons or cancel them entirely, meaning a loss of funds that can jeopardize their futures.
Two companies, Big Dawg Productions and Panache Theatrical Productions, have banded their strengths and gone outside the box[ed seats] to bring to life an audio drama for folks to enjoy from the comforts of home. The companies have evolved the state of what theatre in Wilmington can be and proved when the going gets tough, the tough get innovative.
Under the wise wings of Big Dawg’s artistic director Steve “Hey Baby” Vernon, a top-notch ensemble has been assembled to recreate Orson Welles’ 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” The joint production became available for download through SoundCloud on May 21. For the sake of this review, encore was provided a copy of the file earlier in the week.
Readers who don’t know the hilarious and harrowing infamous backstory: The broadcast was preformed on Devil’s Night in 1938. Orson Welles led his troupe of actors in what was meant to be a fun dramatization of the famed sci-fi novel. The Mercury Theater Players read the adaptation of man’s first encounter with extra-terrestrials. Unfortunately, the night turned into mass hysteria. Panic filled the streets of a country whose citizens believed invaders from Mars had truly decimated Earth’s defenses.
An audio drama recording appears to be a simple yet smart way to drum up business in a dry market. Though, that would be all too simple for the minds at work here. This production is more than a charity drive (the download is $5, which Big Dawg and Panache split). Both companies have found the perfect vehicle to entertain, reach and expand their quarantined audience’s minds.
The Welles’ reading was one of the first times Americans felt duped by the media. Betrayal was long felt and held against the legitimate news for this showman’s trickery. Parallels can be drawn between this inciting event and the fractured nature of America’s current media. Nowadays we’re bombarded with an unending click-bait, 24-hour news cycle that comes with more editorializing than unbiased news reporters. The programs mirror nonstop melodrama or an “Us v Them” sporting event, with “fake news!” shouted the moment someone’s opinion clashes with another. It’s a dangerous line to be blurred for sure, yet one crossed daily as the world is assaulted by the microscopic, biological invader that is COVID-19.
The audio production itself is a quick and engaging listen, boasting a 62-minute runtime. All nine of the players are edited seamlessly together, heard crisp and clean. Never once was there a struggle to understand or follow the nightmare events unfolding. In fact, the depth of sound is used in very clever ways throughout. Simple tricks such as speaking away from the microphone and moving closer to it provide weight to the weightless soundwaves.
The production uses the actual script Welles adapted those many moons ago and it holds up surprisingly well. Never does it feel outdated. In a time where society follows one catastrophe to the next, the production’s content is ripe for modern audiences to become engrossed, just as they were in ‘38. While the production features no real intermission, there is a clear style change around the 40-minute mark. Act one plays out more in a found-footage style. Different reports file in across New Jersey and New York as Martians advance and destroy. The imagery described brought to mind “Cloverfield” or “Night of the Living Dead,” as the horrors spoken of are truly hellish.
Act two takes a more straightforward narration, as the audience is taken through the events from a witness/survivor. The actions moved away from the quick pace pre-apocalyptic hyper nightmare to a subdued post-apocalyptic hellscape. The bleakness of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” easily feels inspired by this section.
A real treat to the ears, though, is how the production embraces its radio roots, by incorporating some legitimate Foley sound-effect techniques. Cast member Scott Davis functioned as sound engineer and created a madcap mixture of traditional Foley and digital effects. His work on the invaders’ ships is a home-run achievement.
The cast is a brilliant who’s who of Wilmington theatre: Holli Saperstein, Jamey Stone, Rebekah Carmichael, J. Robert Raines, Bob Workmon, Hannibal Hills, Scott Davis, Jordan Wolfe and Steve Vernon. Each member of the 2020 troupe truly baits the hook for audiences to bite.
J. Robert Raines brings the listener into the presentation as a friendly radio host, informing that what they are about to hear is all an act. His rich, booming voice is perfect for this medium. His take on the role of Captain Lansing replaces the richness of his voice with a brash pompousness.
Holli Saperstein is the first real anchor into this world as field reporter Carol Phillips. A real Lois Lane energy is given to the role, to which Saperstein’s warm, concerning voice easily lends. It’s not hard to envision scenarios she depicts—so much so that, even in the safety of their own homes, listeners will find themselves ducking and weaving through the battlefield with her. However, her second role as secretary of interior seemed to have some off-putting auto-tune layering to help hide her voice. It was a strange effect that didn’t work.
Rebekah Carmichael takes what could be the throw-away role of announcer one and truly makes the most of it. And one of her better roles is an out-of-her-depth station intern, holding it together as best she can.
Hannibal Hill as a stoic rooftop reporter during the attacks on New York City is chilling til the bitter end. His death chokes will haunt listeners. Orson Welles is brought to life by Bob Workmon. Workmon has the gravity in his voice for Welles but a certain zest is missing.
It’s Scott Davis who walks way with the production as the crazed stranger. It’s brutal to hear him as a survivor of the initial martian onslaught, who’s lost all hope and faith in humanity. He’s crazy, he knows he’s crazy, and he just doesn’t care. It’s really top-notch work; Davis easily gets the Ten Point Gryffindor for this production.
The production’s director, Steve Vernon, plays the pseudo-lead Professor Pierson. In the beginning he starts as a heavy-exposition dump and science-jargon connoisseur. When the show switches to his journal entries on the invasion, we see the man behind the science. His exchange with Davis is the fireworks of the show. Think “Waiting for Godot” set in hell. Vernon’s passion for the project reigns throughout all aspects of it.
Our world currently finds itself at war with its own invading force. Unlike in the classic sci-fi tale, a germ isn’t going to be our savior in disguise this time. Though maybe—just maybe—little green Martians could just be what save our theatre companies?