Trump is scarier. Climate change is scarier. Covid is scarier.
Theatre in the Dark’s production of A War of the Worlds — Mack Gordon and Corey Bradberry adapted the novel by H.G. Wells — has a handful of things going for it.
The novel unfolds in and around Victorian London, but Gordon and Bradberry have moved the story to the Chicago area in October 2021 and they’ve turned the book’s unnamed English protagonist into an American science journalist named H.G. Wells.
But the biggest change is that they’re delivering the story as a live audio experience. As I listened on Friday night, actors in Chicago, New Orleans, and Vancouver were pouring their voices into my ear buds in real time. There are no visuals except those conjured in your head.
Gordon and Bradberry’s text begins with a note of poetry. Before the invasion starts and they get separated, Wells and his wife Isabelle play a game : “Say what you see”, “Say what you hear”, “Say what you taste” … Early on, they describe the night sky. The device is intimate and sensual.
And the writers have made Isabelle a photographer. We hear the story as if it’s being understood from artefacts: H.G.’s journal and Isabelle’s photographs. The photographs allow the playwrights to linger on images, including the lone horse that Isabelle sees running down the highway after the Martians have landed.
Under Bradberry’s direction, some of the acting gets hammy, but Gordon, who’s playing H.G. is effectively restrained. I particularly remember his broken-hearted delivery of “I don’t know where to go” late in the play.
But mostly A War of the Worlds left me cold.
Theoretically, the story of Martian invasion should be resonant. Wells wrote the novel in response to the British treatment of Indigenous Tasmanians and God knows the tragedies of colonialism are still playing out. You could easily read the arrival of the Martians as an analogy for the pandemic. For me, the MAGA movement feels like an invasion of heartless creatures. And the black smoke the invaders use as a weapon speaks to forest fires and climate change.
But I made all of these associations intellectually; I didn’t feel them viscerally.
There’s not a lot of character development in A War of the Worlds and despite the early flash of poetry, the relationships are mostly generic. The one exception is H.G.’s encounter with a survivalist, who is an ally at first but starts to turn weird.
Most damagingly, though, the Martians and the plot feel corny by today’s standards. Wells’s The War of the Worlds is one of the first stories about extraterrestrials — and we’ve had a lot of them since then. The Martians have tentacles and slobbery beaks, but so what? Once you’ve seen Aliens it’s hard to go back, if you know what I mean. The story is unidirectional — the earthlings don’t enjoy a lot of successes — and, rather than inducing horror, this writing is sometimes so naïve it made me laugh: “If we survive, we’re just ants, only now … we’re edible ants!”
For an audio production, A War of the Worlds is also strangely thin in terms of sound. I’m not complaining about Ben Zucker’s original score, in which watery and electronic waves loop with sometimes sinister results. I’m talking about the absence of sound effects. The story refers to crashes, immolation, artillery fire, screaming …. We hear none of it.
The storytelling misfires made listening to A War of the Worlds a mostly empty experience for me.
And I’m serious when I say that Trump, climate change, and Covid are all scarier. Several times while listening to A War of the Worlds I thought, “Is this all you’ve got. My every day contains more horror.” In times like these, why resort to antique metaphors?
A WAR OF THE WORLDS Adapted from H.G. Wells’s novel by Mack Gordon and Corey Bradberry. Directed by Corey Bradberry. A Theatre in the Dark production experienced via Zoom on Friday, October 16. Runs until November 21. Tickets.
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