- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2006

How do you convey to media-saturated viewers the impact of Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds,” which hoodwinked an estimated 1.2 million people into believing that the United States was under Martian attack? Scena Theatre’s efficient production deftly renders the all-business bustle of a live radio show but also shows the listeners’ reaction by having actors planted in the audience.

During the broadcast, the characters leap out of their seats to express terror, excitement, resignation and other emotions provoked by the prospect that the world as they know it is about to end. It’s a nifty concept, one of many director Robert McNamara employs to re-create that infamous night when an up-and-coming director and actor named Orson Welles (Dan Brick, uncannily portraying the legend’s combustible passion and mania for control) toyed with America’s imagination and gullibility.

Mr. Welles wished to present devilish entertainment, but he also wanted to make a statement about how we tend to swallow hook, line and sinker everything fed to us through the great media machine. Challenge information that comes packaged and predigested over the airwaves, he warned — and think for yourself.

Scena’s production is scented with nostalgia, much in the same way George Clooney’s movie “Good Night and Good Luck” evoked the nicotine-tinged waning of the golden age of television news. Set during a time when America was on the brink of World War II and many feared entanglement in a “European” conflict, “War of the Worlds” captures the ebbing of American innocence in a tightly focused production centered on a cramped CBS studio.

Younger audience members who believe sound effects are solely computer-generated might get a charge out of David Crandall’s sound design, which features such do-it-yourself noises as ashtrays being scraped against bricks and cast members hustling into V-formation and humming to simulate the drone of alien aircraft.

Above the mayhem stands Welles, seeming more like a symphony conductor than a radio director, commanding his cast and crew to drive listeners into a carefully calibrated frenzy. As Welles’ directives grow more frantic, the studio announcer (a consummately composed John Tweel) maintains his professional cool, munching doughnuts and later stifling a laugh when the airwaves briefly go dead after the Martians open fire on New Jersey.

John Geoffrion, Lee Ordeman, Sasha Olinick, Kim Curtis and Michael McDonnell energetically depict the creativity involved in live radio as they play a variety of “voices,” including eyewitnesses, talking heads, scientists and other “experts.”

Though it is tremendous fun to have this bird’s-eye view on the making of history, the power of Welles’ broadcast is diminished in a way by watching it unfold onstage. No offense meant to the actors, but “War of the Worlds” is most persuasive if you briefly close your eyes. It is only then that you become one with the American radio audience of 1938: panicked, alone and never again to feel insulated from the troubles of the world — or worlds.

***

WHAT: “War of the Worlds,” adapted by Howard Koch from the H.G. Wells novel

WHERE: Scena Theatre at the D.C. Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays (except Dec. 17 and 24). Through Jan. 14.

TICKETS: $25-$32

PHONE: 703/683-2824

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