By TOM SIME / The Dallas Morning News
PLANO – The original mockumentary set a standard that This Is Spinal Tap and K Street can never hope to best. It was Orson Welles' production of War of the Worlds, an adaptation of H.G. Wells' sci-fi horror tale that, for a few unforgettable minutes on Oct. 30, 1938, panicked thousands as it simulated radio coverage of an invasion by hostile Martians. For Halloween, Rover Dramawerks manages to freshen the famous broadcast with a stage adaptation.
The play, which opened Thursday at the ArtCentre Theatre, is set inside a simulated radio station, which becomes the epicenter of a wave of terror that took hold despite a standard on-air introduction and station-break disclaimers. Enough channel-surfers stumbled in to fall for it en masse, ensuring hysteria, outrage and enduring fame for Welles, writer Howard Koch and their Mercury Theater company.
Rover's adaptation adds new material by Bill Parr, Jason Rice and director Matthew J. Edwards. It's disorienting at first as we see snippets of behind-the-scenes consequences that began while the broadcast was still on the air, including the station manager's (Mr. Rice) attempt to punch Welles (Michael Sturlin) when he refuses to be reined in; a secretary (Rachel Schnitzius) saying, "The switchboard's lit up like a Christmas tree on fire!"; and police bursting in to arrest Welles and colleague John Houseman (Michael Roe).
Opening night showed there were still some bugs to work out; timing sometimes faltered, and there were awkward moments early on. But overall, the dramatization offers a gripping good time. And the tale of an invasion by tentacled creatures with "scientific knowledge far in advance of our own" still boasts chilling moments, even with its artifice pushed to the foreground.
Bill Justus' set design is convincing. And just as fascinating as the actors are the foley artists (Terrie Justus, David A. Miller) who create sound effects using fans, water glasses, a toilet bowl and other everyday objects.
One of the funniest sight gags occurs as the cast gathers to portray screaming human victims hit by the Martian "death ray." Ms. Schnitzius bustles about the studio, then – looking decidedly bored – stops perfunctorily by the microphone to contribute a bloodcurdling shriek. It's a nice job to combine a hoot with a few goose bumps for trick-or-treat season.
War of the Worlds, presented by Rover Dramawerks at ArtCentre Theatre, 1028
15th Place, Plano, through Nov. 8. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. Additional
performances Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, 7, 8 at 10 p.m. Tickets $10, with $2 discounts
for students and seniors. Runs 60 min. Call 972-849-0358, or go to www.roverdramawerks.com.