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Nicholas Campbell, Don McKellar and Marc Bendavid in War of the Worlds

John Lauener

3.5 out of 4 stars

It's said that seeing is believing. But hearing can make belief stronger - and even lead us to believe in things we can't see. The Art of Time Ensemble proves this with its latest theatrical concert, The War of the Worlds.

The show's second half is the marquee attraction: a full recreation of the hour-long 1938 radio drama that made Orson Welles's name, it stars Don McKellar ( Slings and Arrows), Nicholas Campbell ( Da Vinci's Inquest) and the lesser-known but no less talented stage actor Marc Bendavid.

As the long-standing legend goes, this radio adaptation of H.G. Wells's novel about an alien invasion, told through a series of fake news reports, was so believable that many listeners were convinced a real attack from Mars was taking place. (That we readily believe the many exaggerated stories about the original broadcast may be a sign that we're no less credulous today, however.)

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Directed by Art of Time artistic director Andrew Burashko, this version of The War of the Worlds lets the audience into the studio where the radio play was broadcast. McKellar plays Welles, using a voice filled with suitable bombast for his narration, and communicating the director's mischievousness and arrogance through his body language. Campbell fully inhabits a flask-carrying actor who voices the sole surviving physicist who narrates the final 20 minutes of the radio drama. Bendavid's character fills in with eye witnesses, reporters on the scene and various military men.

John Gzowksi, playing the foley artist, provides all the sound effects from the side of the stage - a tapped coil and tin sheet, for instance, creating the sound of a heat ray vaporizing humans. Meanwhile, Burashko conducts five members of his ensemble in character as the CBS orchestra during the accompanying musical bits.

The recreation works on a couple of levels: It's very amusing to watch the voice actors wander about casually smoking in between their delivery of lines designed to induce panic and terror. At the same time, even though our eyes assure us there's absolutely nothing to worry about, we get pulled into the terrible story they tell of mankind annihilated by an extraterrestrial race.

(While Welles and Wells are both enduringly famous, Howard Koch - who wrote the actual radio script used here - is less so, and deserves a mention. A co-writer of Casablanca, Koch was later the victim of real American mass hysteria, the Red Scare, which led him to be blacklisted in the 1950s.)

As for the first half of the evening, Burashko conducts the ensemble in a collage of thriller scores by composer Bernard Herrmann that are arranged by Dan Parr, and called Herrmannthology.

Herrmann is best-known for his work with Alfred Hitchcock on films such as The Man Who Knew Too Much and North by Northwest. But he also wrote the music for many of Welles's radio dramas and a little film called Citizen Kane. (Herrmann had impeccable taste in collaborators to the end of his career - among his final scores was the one for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.)

As snippets of Herrmann's scores are heard, a mash-up of film images is shown on the screen: Cary Grant running through a field away from an airplane, Jimmy Stewart running away from various Hitchcock blondes, Rosebud roasting on an open fire, as well as clips from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Naked and the Dead (1958). Tension rises even though the projection, to be honest, begins to feel like an endless Academy Awards show montage.

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The nine-piece Art of Time Ensemble showcased here has no strings aside from a bass, so we don't always get the full effect of Herrmann's compositions. That also means the most famous strains he ever wrote are missing: those screeching stabs of violin that accompany Janet Leigh's shower death in Psycho.

But we do hear the prelude from that film, as well as the equally dramatic one from Vertigo that Lady Gaga samples at the start of her current hit, Born This Way. Another memorable moment in the suite comes when flutist Les Allt briefly puts down his instrument to whistle the chilling leitmotif from 1968's Twisted Nerve (a theme that Quentin Tarantino later repurposed in Kill Bill).

Would we find these films as chilling without the scores? Head over to YouTube, where you can watch the Psycho shower scene with and without music. It, like this evening with Art of Time, shows just how terrifying sound can be.

The War of the Worlds

  • Directed by Andrew Burashko
  • Starring Don McKellar and Nicholas Campbell
  • An Art of Time Ensemble production
  • At the Enwave Theatre in Toronto

The War of the Worlds continues until April 3.

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