Penfold Theatre’s “A War of the Worlds,” running through June 18 at Ground Floor Theatre and directed by Marcus McQuirter, is the world premiere of Austin-born playwright Jarrett King’s latest script.
The play dramatizes the 1938 radio broadcast “The War of the Worlds,” and the fallout it famously created, but imagines Orson Welles as a Black director and his Mercury Theatre performers as a troupe of Black actors. The broadcast, itself an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel about an extraterrestrial attack, manipulated the medium of radio, shocking audiences who tuned in to the program but were convinced they were listening to the news. King’s script blends historical fiction and science fiction, drawing inspiration from both the historical event of the broadcast and its science fiction content.
In King’s version, the actors performing the radio drama are the same actors Welles historically collaborated with on his so-called ‘Voodoo Macbeth’in 1936, remembered as the first professional New York production of Shakespeare with an all-Black cast. King sprinkles in lines from Welles’ Macbeth adding a sense of heightened importance to the actors’ undertakings and drawing attention to power relationships within the troupe.
The clearest example of internal power struggles for this group of actors comes from their leader, Orson Welles, portrayed by Marc Pouhé. Domineering and driven by his artistic ambitions, Pouhé’s Welles is a charismatic but demanding leader. However, over the course of the play, he shifts toward intimidating his actors into maintaining his vision for the radio performance, despite their growing reservations.
Welles’s use of power extends to his romantic involvement with an intern at the station, Lois Ballard (Sarah Joy Byington), who is eager for a break as an actress but dependent on him for advancement, a fact he is willing to exploit. The play proves timely, positioning Welles as a kind of stand-in for the type of powerful man in the world of entertainment that is becoming less and less tolerated post #MeToo. But the Welles character is complicated by his collaborator’s acknowledgment of his real artistic innovations and the stark difference between the respect he is afforded within the studio and discrimination he faces outside.
Tomas Salas’ clever set design suggests a 1930s recording studio and an adjoining sitting room, and Desireé Humphries’ costumes complete the picture, enhancing the characters’ different personalities while adding a bit of historical context. This context continues when, through a news segment that precedes the Mercury Theatre performance, the audience learns that the events of the play are happening only a few days after a riot in Harlem sparked by racial discrimination and misinformation.
Exploring the tension between fake news and groundbreaking art, the play suggests both are powerful forces. While the historical Welles probably played a role in mythologizing the effect of the radio drama, in King’s play, there’s never any question as to whether the broadcast is having an impact on the public. As soon as the players hint that something out of the ordinary is happening on Mars, producer John Houseman (Judd Farris) bursts into the studio to inform the cast that the broadcast is causing panic, including car accidents and concerned phone calls.
Confident of his own artistic genius, Welles pushes his actors to follow through with the production, callously disregarding the growing violence in the outside world. The heightened risks he is asking his actors to take on as Black artists do not enter into his calculations, leading to a tense standoff that is only remedied through a mysterious intervention by the once-fictional aliens in a science-fiction twist on magical realism.
Throughout, Welles spurs his actors on by appealing to the corporate sponsorships that the success of this experimental radio performance will likely earn them. When his prediction pans out, it appears that 1938 advertisers are unconcerned with chaos on the streets caused by programming as long as people are tuning in. While this corporate disregard for public welfare may initially seem illogical, in a series of metatheatrical moments, one of Penfold’s associate artistic directors interrupts the performance with a perfectly calibrated awkwardness to deliver updates from a sponsor of the show itself.
These innovative moments bring the play’s commentary on the relationship between experimental art, manipulations of truth, and sponsorship into the present, creating thought-provoking parallels between the effects of ‘fake news’ spread through radio and today’s mass media.
“A War of the Worlds” proves a fitting choice for Penfold, and not only because playwright King previously performed in Penfold’s 2016 production of “Clybourne Park” and co-wrote “Perfect Profile,” a musical staged by the company in 2015.
Penfold is an old hand at radio drama too, from their 2021 readings of archival “Theatre Guild on the Air” radio shows to their annual holiday program resurrecting a radio drama version of a classic film such as “Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life.” The company’s familiarity with the genre pays off in the current production, from the onstage foley work to the strong radio voices of all the cast members.
Under McQuirter’s direction, “A War of the Worlds” tells two stories, that of one day in the lives of the radio drama cast and that of the alien invasion story itself. The action moves between the two stories seamlessly, with a few fourth wall breaks sprinkled in.
A strong adaptation and original play in its own right, King’s script manipulates history to bring contemporary concerns to the forefront.