Detroit Mercy Theatre’s ‘War of The Worlds’ reminds us of what’s news and what’s not
DETROIT, Mich.–The “War of the Worlds” was an episode of a radio drama anthology performed by Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre in 1938 that has taken on a mythic reputation for scaring some listeners into thinking it was an actual news report about an invasion from outer space. It was an adaptation of H. G. Wells‘ novel The War of the Worlds (1898), and performed and broadcast live as a Halloween episode.
The Detroit Mercy Theatre Company is performing War of The Worlds: The Panic Broadcast, a work by Joe Landry, and a play within a play. The inside play is the actual broadcast from 1938. The larger story has very modern context and meaning. Landry’s script makes it impossible to not draw the parallels of a radio broadcast in 1938 seeming to deliver a false story to the masses and today’s trend of biased websites and a major cable network pushing out false and misleading stories to favor a political party or agenda while masquerading as a source of actual information.
In performing a reenactment of the original Mercury broadcast, we hear from characters performed by the actors reacting and describing what they thought they saw. A space ship and space invaders. This not only points to people making things up, but the willingness of folks to believe what they hear from the media. It also, for me, highlights and reminds us that people tend to be far more wrapped up in their daily living than spending enormous time sifting news outlets for what is real and what is made up.
The panic that arose from some people during the broadcast came about because people had tuned into their radio station not having heard the introduction of the program. They missed the information that it was a radio drama and not the news. Today, the masses tend to choose their sources of news/entertainment based on their political and cultural drives. And, we know now, outright false stories will end up on our social media feeds depending on how adept the posters are at targeting people and manipulating portals like Facebook and Twitter, or how much they are willing to pay Facebook and Twitter.
Directed by Andrew Papa, the story, and allegory really, is well thought out by Landry. David Gram does commendable job of portraying radio man Freddy Filmore. Gram personifies the animated and clarion-voice broadcaster who can change voices and characters on a dime. Taylor LaPorte likewise is perfect as a jack-of-all-trades radio voiceover, changing characters effectively according to script. She and Jenna Kellie Pittman, who also animates the radio play with her presence, are dressed beautifully for the time by the three-member wardrobe crew. Kudos to Elise Panneman as the Foley artist, creating sound effects for the broadcast. Preston Cornelius also shows his chops for changing characters and getting into the spirit of the 1938 era. Andrew Guay plays news man Jake Laurents.
Most of the show is done by the actors on book. It is, after all, a radio play with scripts. No problem there, except for a few times when an actor didn’t seem as familiar with the text as they might have been had they memorized it, and got into a twisted tongue situation. But that’s a quibble that does not take away from the timely takeaway from the show. At times, it did feel as if the acting dynamics of the original Mercury broadcast were not adhered to. But it’s hard, I suppose, to get student actors to rise to the level of Orson Welles.
Part of the play is dealing with the aftermath of the original broadcast, including interviews with Orson Welles and producer John Houseman. It’s a clever approach to talk to the creators about what they unintentionally wrought.
In a closing scene, we get the cast standing with a series of old radios, from the 1930 to more modern times. As we hear a progression of news broadcast snippets, from the shooting of John Kennedy to the explosion of the Challenger , the attacks on September 11, right up to the fake Trump caravan in Mexico, we are taken on a trip from when the news media could be trusted to report what we needed to know to the present day covering of the White House, which purposely lies on an hourly basis.
Take from the play what you will. At the end of the play, when listening to the succession of news reports from radio and TV, mine was a reminder of how much we have lost as we, as a society, have so blithely allowed bad people and foreign enemies full of hubris to manipulate the first amendment to our collective detriment.
The War of The Worlds broadcast notwithstanding, there was a time, in my lifetime, when a handful of news outlets could be trusted to deliver credible information. Yes, there were always political slants on the editorial page. And conservatives despised both Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather. But the newsmakers were much less likely to be so brazen in their spin, substituting bullshit for truth on an hourly basis that they know is false. The responsible media and responsible people know it’s false. But it is shot out a digital hose anyway to those who just aren’t interested enough or empathetic enough to care about separating fact from fiction.
The scale of the actual panic in 1938 is debatable. It seems that a relatively few number of listeners has grown to a ridiculous number over the decades. Indeed, that “the country” was panicked, which many believe in the retelling, is actual fake news.