Stage Preview: Bricolage re-creates Welles' infamous broadcast in 'Midnight Radio: The War of the Worlds'

Bricolage re-creates Welles' infamous broadcast in 'Midnight Radio: The War of the Worlds'


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Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.

If you heard those words over the airwaves today, you might glance at Twitter just in case #MartianInvasion was trending. More likely, you'd recognize the radio broadcast that struck fear in the hearts of listeners caught unawares by the 1938 broadcast of "War of the Worlds."

'Midnight Radio: The War of the Worlds'

Where: Bricolage Theatre, 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown.

When: Today through Nov. 9. 9 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and Oct. 30.

Tickets: $25 or $15 student/senior; $75 for live broadcast by WESA-FM radio on Oct. 30; 412-471-0999 or www. bricolagepgh.org.

Oft-repeated stories of panic that followed the radio show and the instant fame it brought to Orson Welles, who was 23 at the time, have ingrained the original broadcast into pop-culture lore. The H.G. Wells book "War of the Worlds," a couple of movies by the same name and radio reproductions in other parts of the globe are all components in a legend that, unlike those killer Martians, never seems to go away.

Bricolage's Jeffrey Carpenter and Tami Dixon have woven the famous broadcast into their "Midnight Radio" series before, but for its 75th anniversary, they have added a few twists. On Oct. 30, "Midnight Radio" will broadcast the show live on 90.5 WESA-FM, with "Essential Pittsburgh" host Paul Guggenheimer handling the announcing duties as Welles did back in the day. It's the first time for a repeated theme for the "Midnight Radio" series and, on opening night, the second time they will invite tweeters and bloggers to do their thing from the back row of the theater.

On nights other than that of the live broadcast, "Midnight Radio Season 5, Episode 2: The War of the Worlds" will have its usual mix of faux breaking news and commercial spoofs to go along with the Foley sound effects of yesteryear and pre-show lobby activities.

Mr. Carpenter, Bricolage's artistic director, said it was a no-brainer to make this the company's first repeated theme.

"There were so many people who didn't get to see it last time, and we got calls for weeks afterward, when are we going to bring it back?"

"And right away we were like, Oh, this could be our 'Nutcracker.' At the scary Halloween time of year, this could be our signature piece," said Ms. Dixon, his wife and the company's producing artistic director.

Like previous "Midnight Radio" episodes, the "War of the Worlds" version told by Bricolage will have a decidedly Pittsburgh edge, so the "Jersey farmland," for instance, may translate to a venue familiar to Western Pennsylvanians. "We are not going to reinvent the wheel so much as freshen it up," Mr. Carpenter said, but there will be some changes from the company's first go-round with the material. For one thing, Ms. Dixon, who creates the sound effects, and Andrew J. Paul on projections have two years more experience to evolve and improve.

"It's always a challenge," Ms. Dixon said. "We meet every script like it's new to the art form: How do we do a car idling? It's very exciting, I think, because we are two years better and we've never revisited anything for 'Midnight Radio' before. We're anticipating it feeling like an old friend."

"War of the Worlds" was destined to be a touchstone for a company that has dedicated parts of five seasons to the concept of staging old-time radio broadcasts for live audiences. In the years since Welles' original broadcast, it has continued to transcend the entertainment medium. In the 1940s, an Ecuadoran radio station re-created the script for its listeners, who became convinced that aliens were attacking. When they found out they had been fooled, an angry mob burned down the newspaper building that housed the station and deaths were reported, although the number ranges from a handful to dozens.

"It galvanized the power of media for one thing, and it single-handedly really launched Orson Welles' career, because he was in so much trouble afterward," Mr. Carpenter said. "He immediately became famous and put the Mercury Theatre on a path as pioneers."

"It took the art of storytelling to the next level," Ms. Dixon said. "It was the first immersive stuff. Radio or sound comes into your home, that's an immersion of sorts. But when you get people engaged on that level -- he was the pioneer in that, in realizing it could be done."

"And it paved the way to guys like Andy Kaufman and Sacha Baron Cohen," continued Mr. Carpenter, "some of the acts that are trying to blur that line between reality and how much will the public actually believe, which has really transitioned into Twitter and Facebook and is now more social-media driven. The span of time is much shorter now. You can confirm things much quicker now."

Hoaxes, intended or otherwise, can be debunked in an instant these days. Bill Cosby, for instance, has been declared dead a number of times on social media and has taken to @BillCosby repeatedly to let people know he's still here. Legends have grown about the alleged panic that accompanied the original broadcast, with people tuning in after the theatrical introduction to the radio play, which was conceived as a news show about an invasion.

"There were great myths about how much damage was done," Mr. Carpenter said.

Added Ms. Dixon, "We always hear the story about the famous actor of the era who was up in Connecticut on his farm and he heard the broadcast and he went out and released all of his prized hounds from their crates because if this was the end, he thought he'd let them escape."

Kicking around some of those stories, another reaction occurs to Bricolage's Tami Dixon, one that suggests a lesson to be learned.

"Something like this, aliens, it's such a foreign, foreign thing, so suddenly we are all humans. It's the great leveler, this creature from outer space is descending on us and destroying things, and suddenly we are all brothers and sisters. That's just how it is when we watch all of those movies. When you look at it like that, then problems become very small, and it's, 'Why would we treat each other like this?' "

For the streamlined live broadcast on Oct. 30, doors open at 8 for a pre-show reception featuring a ramen tasting by Salt of the Earth and special guests. Patrons are asked to dress in their "finest 1938-esque or End of the World Attire" for a post-apocalyptic party.

Doors will not be barred for fear of angry folks who discover they had been fooled into believing Martians were invading.

"But wouldn't that be a nice problem to have?" Mr. Carpenter said with a smile.

 

* Check out Sunday's TV Week cover story on the PBS program "American Experience: War of the Worlds."

 


Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.

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