Before the cast takes the stage, a scan of the set for "The War of the Worlds" signals a change in aesthetic for the Montana Repertory Theatre.
What looks like a basement studio, fallen into disrepair with stained concrete walls and boarded-up windows, is far removed from the lush design of past touring productions of classics like "The Great Gatsby" or "Barefoot in the Park."
Core elements that audiences expect from a Rep play — strong acting, production and a "classic" American story are all in place — but the execution has been shifted drastically.
While the production honors the script, written by Howard E. Koch based on H.G. Wells alien-invasion novel, and performed on the air in 1938 by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre that famously terrified listeners, what you see from the Rep is for all intents and purposes a brand-new play grafted onto an older one.
The Rep and artistic director Michael Legg hired Caitlin O'Connell, a director from Brooklyn who specializes in new plays, to figure out what "War of the Worlds" in 2020 would look like.
What they came up with is not a traditional radio play performed on stage, with a handful of actors standing in front of microphones, and a Foley artist manipulating gadgets to simulate the sound of an airplane.
O’Connell took the script, with its braided and sometimes stuffily formal language, and grafted on a contemporary and grungy science-fiction setting.
A group of modern-day survivors of an unnamed disaster, dressed in worn clothes and bearing packs of gear, enters that tumbledown studio as though they’ve done this routine before and need to complete it quickly. They dart about, setting up radio equipment and devices, and then begin enacting Koch’s script: a calm radio broadcast interrupted by bulletins of gasses from Mars approaching Earth.
The cast comprises two locals: Jeremy Sher, a transplant to Missoula who’s worked in large cities like Chicago, and written and produced scripts here; Hudson Therriault, a recent University of Montana graduate; and three union actors from New York: Glenna Brucken, Rachel Lin and Lorenzo Villanueva.
Each voices a handful of the more than 20 characters from Koch’s script, from military men (Sher’s are delightful) to newscasters or scientists (Lin’s work on the extended ending is a quiet and poetic space to land after a deliberately frenetic first half). Brucken and Villanueva both suggest their characters’ survivor’s trauma as they try to maintain their composure during the broadcast.
Sound designer Michael Costagliola employs classic Foley sound artist tools (a waterphone, a large drum, and ringing champagne glasses) along with less conventional ones (crinkled Styrofoam) to create the noises, and O’Connell has set the cast sprinting about the stage to enact them, while lighting suggests threats that could send them back into hiding.
The original Mercury Theatre recording sounds stately to modern ears. The visual elements here renew the sense of chaos in the story. And while the script is completely serious, it’s enjoyable and sometimes simply fun watching the cast undertake the challenge. There’s nothing particularly humorous about aliens readying to destroy us, but seeing two actors conjure up the sound with the singing-glass party trick can be.
Re-animating an 82-year-old script wouldn’t be much more of a conceptual stunt if not for the underlying thought they’ve placed in it. They tease out the themes that are still relevant: questions about authority and its competence; how we'd cope, or fail to respond, if disaster strikes; and what's worth saving about the world. Anyone who subscribes to a streaming service could tell you that audiences crave these kinds of stories, and it’s pleasing to see a theater company, which doesn’t have the benefit of all the special effects Netflix can pay for, stake some claim to the territory.
It’s still, as the Rep has promised audiences for some time, an American story, but it’s told in a style and form they, and hopefully new audience members, aren’t expecting.