The new prologue begins subtly – theatre doors aren’t even shut when a radio comes on. You might not even stop chatting – if your companion was interesting – because light continued to infuse the theatre from side doors ajar. However, the persistent radio captured an irksome quanta of your attention, however de minimis that might be. A moment later, some actors – or is it some public-faced theatre staff? – grab a bit more of your attention, until a second or so later when the doors have closed, and there’s no more light coming in, that you realize the stage has your full attention. Only afterwards will it dawn on you that your mind was transported one place to another along such a smooth continuum that you arrived where you intended with only a limited sense of how you got there.
Stanford Repertory Theatre’s “War of the Worlds,” which just opened last week, really is that subtle. Given that subtlety might be the last thing for which this show is known, that alone is reason enough to check out this new production.
“War of the Worlds” is a curious offering – guaranteed to pull in as many film noir buffs as those whose last exposure to Welles might have been decades past. My own dates to mid 60’s NJ, when grade school teachers used it to relieve the boredom of their charges by playing it regularly, along with broadcasts of the Hindenberg disaster. Their rationale for the pairing is hard to imagine. Orson Welles wanted “War of the Worlds” to be done in the histrionic style of the Hindenberg broadcast – however, it’s more likely the pairing was intended as a primitive exercise in media awareness. Such would not have mattered anyway. Confident in the self-assured arrogance that is the natural province of fifth graders, we nonetheless clamored ‘round as references to Elizabeth, Bayonne, Plainfield, Newark and the swamps of nearby Morristown inspired a train wreck-like fascination otherwise reserved for the riots in Newark and the garbage strike in the NYC.
All that, has nothing to do with this excellent production, which has a new surprise ending (don’t look for hints here!) and a new prologue, authored by Larry Maslon. Those alone, make this show worth revisiting, as do imaginative performances by a cast that includes Don Demico, Thomas Freeland, and Courtney Walsh (who receives some of the biggest laughs of the evening when she reports on the death of her character, Carla Phillips).
The Stanford Repertory Theatre (SRT) began in 1997. Until very recently, it was known as Stanford Summer Theatre (SST), whose mix of Equity players and students provided welcome relief from student fare, and whose intelligent offerings made Stanford the place to be for south bay and peninsula theatre in the summer. Although their web site is devoid of future offerings, the SRT claims to be year around – and if this is the case, we can all look forward to fewer drives to Berkeley and SF for top notch theatre.
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“War of the Worlds” makes the transition to this stage almost effortlessly, with actors easily exchanging roles and performing sound effects with devices from a prop table groaning under an array of plungers, wine glasses, whistles, a hand bell, rotating bingo cage, and more – all back from an era where creativity went into producing and shaping the sound, rather than taking it wholesale from a digital library. However fascinating these props may be, director Rush Rehm was spot on correct when he urged audience to take at least a few minutes to listen with eyes shut, as it retains the ability to powerfully imprint images of Martians and death rays upon your consciousness.
“War of the Worlds” runs through August 24 at the Nitery Theatre on campus.