nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
October 8, 2010
Remember television in the 1970s or '80s: before cable, DVRs, and the internet made it possible to watch your favorite show over and over, whenever you wanted? Well, think back even further. Think back to families sitting down together around their radios, listening to stories told entirely with voices and sound effects—serial dramas, suspenseful mysteries, even adaptations of classic novels or plays. Drawn from the company of Orson Welles's successful Mercury Theatre, Mercury Theatre on the Air presented some of the most ambitious, most exciting work of the era. And for their Halloween broadcast in 1938, they created an adaptation (scripted by Howard Koch, though intended to sound like a series of news broadcasts) of the H.G. Wells novel War of the Worlds, about a Martian invasion of Earth.
Seventy-some years later, Anne Bogart's SITI Company, working on a piece about Orson Welles, became fascinated with radio plays, and the place they'd held in American culture. Their production of War of the Worlds, using the original radio script and set in the Columbia Broadcasting Studio during the broadcast, in turn inspired the creation of Radio Macbeth, a "play-within-a-radio-play-within-a-play," or a rehearsal for (what I think is meant to be) a radio play version of Macbeth, late at night in a vaguely derelict theatre. The two pieces are being presented together for the first time.
Taken separately, each has much to offer, especially War of the Worlds, which, although SITI has been touring with it for nearly ten years, I saw for the first time. I don't know that anything in contemporary American popular culture can really convey the experience of listening to a radio play in the radio era—and particularly one as famous, and as famously shocking, as War of the Worlds—but I think Anne Bogart and Darron West's staging is about as close as we can come. With Stephen Duff Webber, playing Orson Welles, directing the action from within; with a judicious use of sound and lighting effects to raise the stakes; with a genuine aura of improvisation and a sense of being let in on a secret, there's a building excitement in the room that draws on both the energy of watching a group of performers alive with the process of creation (here, doubled by the fact that this applies to both the historic Mercury Players and the contemporary SITI Company), and the inherent scariness and tension in the story itself. Framed as a series of news bulletins that interrupt a program of dance music, beginning with some strange visual activity seen on the surface of Mars and ending with giant, seemingly unstoppable Martian craft striding across the Hudson River and terminating the broadcast, the piece is both cleverly constructed and realized with an urgency that underscores its effectiveness. And some of SITI's trademark crystalline visual moments work their way even into this primarily auditory piece—like Orson Welles, setting all the gears of his machine into play and then sitting down on a stool in the midst of the ongoing piece (that is, in the midst of the Martian advance on New York City) to slowly eat his dinner.
Radio Macbeth is a little more complicated, and its relationship to radio more tenuous. It slips in and out of three levels of performance: a group of rehearsing actors, with their set of pre-existing relationships, the details of which we are privy to only by inference as all the actual spoken dialogue comes from Shakespeare; a book-in-hand rehearsal for Macbeth, with actors at varying levels of engagement, familiarity, and experimentation with the text and the character relationships; and an actual absorption—by both performers and audience—into the story and the world of Macbeth, such that, for example, in the final battle scene between Macbeth and Macduff, the actors playing those two roles come perilously close to violence and have to be pulled apart by other players. And of course, there's a fourth level, of the literal experience we're all having in the room—being in the presence of a company of actors who've worked together for years, and whose connection and attention to one another and palpable presence in the space even when they're on the periphery of the scene is always exciting to watch.
Though there are some experiments with broadcast sound, and some vocal tricks used by actors playing multiple roles (as most of the company, with the exception of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, does—the remaining 25 or so roles are played by 5 actors) to differentiate, most of the meat of the piece comes from an intense rendition of Macbeth, stripped down to the most propulsive elements of its bloody plot: Macbeth hears a prophecy of his own future success; comes home and is swiftly talked into murder by his wife; reaps the rewards of his violent act and almost immediately must commit more murders to protect himself; begins to be haunted by both ghosts and doubts; and is brought down as swiftly as he rose. This version also focuses very strongly on father-son relationships (or, in the case of Macbeth, his realizations that his actions will benefit not his own sons—who don't even appear in the play—but his colleague Banquo's, as the witches prophesy that Banquo's descendants will rule)—Malcolm and Duncan; Banquo and Fleance; Lady Macduff and Macduff's young son.
Where War of the Worlds is focused externally, on both the audience in the room and the listening radio audience, Radio Macbeth is a much more internal and intimate piece; this group of actors seems to be working out their dynamics for themselves as a process, rather than really presenting the play as any sort of finished product. And although this lends some interesting dynamics, it also makes the piece feel at times disorganized, a little too much a collation of moments rather than a unified whole. I also didn't always understand how the framing devices worked in Radio Macbeth. There's a focused clarity of purpose to the backstage setting in War of the Worlds that's lacking in Radio Macbeth. I enjoyed the version of Shakespeare's story presented by Radio Macbeth, but I'm not sure its integration with the context and frame of the production made organic sense.