Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


One of my chief rewards after publishing a review is to finally read how other reviewers regarded the same production — although when I'm the odd one out, I get to pondering whether I had it wrong. A quiet house, an off night, I could have reviewed a bad egg. (Critics: they have doubts!) Given my cooler assessment in discord with the thrills over It Came from Mars, I was glad to have another stab at this co-production, now at the Williamston Theatre.

Was I mistaken? Yes, to a great extent. The play's second act, in which the War of the Worlds freakout premise is entirely contained, is practically perfect. Celebrated local playwright Joseph Zettelmaier allows his six characters to carry out hoped-for developments as well as taking the narrative in unexpected directions, all the while weaving together a formidable number of stories. Director Tony Caselli begins the act with tightly packed counterpoint dialogue layered over the infamous 1938 Orson Welles broadcast, masterfully allowing crucial words to be heard while rapidly registering six separate reactions, a clear demonstration to the audience that things are about to move very fast. The second time around, I connected more with the actors' changing energies — focused, distracted, diffuse — and was more easily swept up in the swift-moving flow.

The expository first act is quieter, but only by comparison. The fleshed-out characters air their anxieties short and long term: economic woes, the questionable future of radio drama, even the delicate state of foreign relations just as another world war is brewing. While still thoroughly enjoying Alysia Kolascz's secretive simpleton, I got much more this time out of the animosity between trigger-happy veteran George (Joseph Albright) and German emigrant Werner (Jacob Hodgson), as well as from the sincere redemptive arc of Wayne David Parker as Quentin. Even the relative outsider, Maude (Morgan Chard), has plenty to play with in a highly educated woman whose frustrating career options range from put-upon secretary to put-upon receptionist. It is truly an impressive number of plots to follow, but Zettelmaier lays them all out — and wraps most of them up — with ease. One scene near the end of the first act still felt cartoonish, but this time it stood out in contrast to the rest of the play's expertly handled histrionics, a major credit to Caselli and the cast.

Janine Woods Thoma's gorgeous set is even more at home in the closed-in Williamston space, with the seating feeling so much like an extension of the WHQN rehearsal room that patrons simply walked across the stage (despite the signs warning against it). Will Myers's sound design gets the period and the tone just right, with lots of sound effects–heavy ditties. The other details are amply filled in by costumes and properties by Sally L. Converse-Doucette and Charles Sutherland, respectively. The only period detail missing is a veritable fog of cigarette smoke, but it's one audiences aren't likely to miss. The lighting design has a few laughs of its own with gleefully spooky "faulty wiring" moments.

Lest I seem like an apologist reviewer, I maintain that the show still doesn't rank as my favorite of the playwright's or the director's work — although this is more a matter of preference, and testament to their impressive catalogs, than attributable to any flaw in this airtight production. Days of dissecting and reassembling the script in my head finally helped me figure out my hangup, although it was trumped by the realization that one benign, difficult-to-explain drawback is not worth derailing a review of a solidly written, explosively staged comedy. With its many fun and surprising developments working within a rigid historical framework, It Came from Mars is one more example of Zettelmaier's range and skill; more importantly, it requires no scrutiny to scare up laugh upon laugh.

Read more in my original review of It Came from Mars!


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