Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Pop quiz: When the Martians land, what do you do? A: Ensure the safety of your family. B: Hunker down and barricade the door. C: Search for conspiracies. D: Profess your love before it's too late. E: Laugh, because you're the only one who realizes it's an ingenious hoax. In Joseph Zettelmaier's latest play, It Came From Mars, the answer is the audience, that is. Directed by Tony Caselli, this world premiere at the Performance Network plays with a delightful concept, finding humor in the scenario and the relationships alike.

On the evening of October 30, 1938, a group of performers gathers to rehearse at WHQN New York, terrified this may be the eve of their final broadcast. The first act is full of palpable strife about job security and the future of the radio drama medium, as the characters encounter creative and personal differences — a last-minute replacement actress who demands her ex-husband director grovel before she will take the role, a roiling distrust between a wounded veteran and the German-born sound effects artist. However, 10/30/38 has more significance than simply providing Great Depression and pre–World War II context: this is the date of the famous Orson Welles The War of the Worlds radio broadcast, and the ensuing, even more famous hysteria of a listening public that believed an alien invasion was upon them. At the end of the first act, when the six characters tune in to the broadcast in progress, they, too, believe it completely. In every subsequent action they take to save their own lives, the audience is in on the joke.

The panic and chaos is goofy fun, and there's plenty of it in both acts, but my favorite scenes were a pair of low-key, contemplative discoveries in the second act, when mending and forging relationships seem far more important than futile attempts to survive the unknown. As Dolores, Alysia Kolascz puts forth a fiercely dim facade; together, she and the painfully earnest Werner (Jacob Hodgson) create a perfect moment that's funny because it's so touching. Similarly, boozy Julia (Sandra Birch) and barking Quentin (Wayne David Parker) take the energy way down to great effect. Caselli's direction is strongest when the characters are finally allowed to connect, and these quieter scenes garner laughs as hefty as those from much bigger punchlines. Zettelmaier makes smart choices about the framework, introducing professional ties and rivalries with Welles that only heighten the audience's feeling of superiority: clearly, if anyone should have known better, it's these people, and their fallacy adds a uniquely personal element to what was a nationwide phenomenon.

The design elements combine to form a Depression-worn aesthetic. Janine Woods Thoma's towering Metropolis-like skyscrapers, adorned with sooty pentagon lights like lens flares, flank the Art Deco–tinged studio that takes quite a pounding over the course of two hours. Sally L. Converse-Doucette's costumes and Will Myers's zany sound design entrench the viewer in period details, and the cornucopia of sound effects equipment by properties designer Charles Sutherland is put to outstanding use. The rich visuals and audio both supplement and directly contribute to the world of the play.

I'm a big fan of both Zettelmaier and Caselli, so my confession that It Came From Mars is not my favorite of their work shouldn't indicate that the production is lacking — favorite here is relative. For a production whose biggest successes were found in amicable moments, I was let down by its tendency toward petty sniping and frenzied shouting. Regardless, Zettelmaier capitalizes on what fun it is to laugh at characters who don't know as much as the audience does, and the premise proves to be a solid foundation that's funny on its own. The show is a tightly conceived, fever-pitch comedy that also brings out the warmth in its characters, and its take on fear in the face of a bleak future gives a contemporary feel to a nostalgic romp.


Post a Comment