Garrison Keillor tells a story from the early days of television, when flickering black-and-white images were luring audiences away from audio-only radio drama. A young boy, asked which he preferred, radio or TV, answered without hesitation, "Radio. Because the pictures are better."
Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear (prizes for the first five callers to identify that quote) as Shakespeare & Company takes us into a 1930s sound studio for the world's most famous radio play—the Halloween show that spooked a nation. Tony Simotes' production is built around the infamous broadcast of War of the Worlds on October 30, 1938, an adaptation of H.G. Wells' sci-fi novel performed by Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre on the Air.
The publicity for the Lenox production bills that broadcast as "radio's greatest hoax." But it wasn't a hoax, rather an unintended consequence of scriptwriter Howard Koch's clever framing device. Listeners who tuned in after the opening credits heard a swing band concert interrupted by news flashes reporting an invasion of Earth by aliens from Mars. Many people panicked, thinking it was real.
Simotes and his cast have taken the concept one step further, devising an old-time radio variety show, with us as the studio audience cued with a light-up "Applause" sign. "The Jack Holloway Show" has all the elements of period radio: a smarmy host headlining a resident company of studio players (costumed by Kara D. Midlam in shoulder-padded, nylon-stockinged '30s fashions) who perform songs, sketches, commercial breaks (with jokey ads for actual Lenox businesses, along with shameless promotions of coming attractions at this theater) and a dramatic serial with live sound effects.
It's a bit slapdash, but amusing in a party-skit kind of way. The choice of countrified folk songs for the musical interludes seems out of place in a New York studio where you'd expect to hear Andrews Sisters harmonies, but the parody of an Indiana Jones-era adventure serial, with a tough-talking hero and a Germanic villain given to malapropisms, is spot-on hilarious.
It's not until the cast slides into a super-hammy rendition of the Pyramus and Thisbe scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream (this company's first name is Shakespeare, after all) that news from the outside world starts interrupting the radio show. From wire-service bulletins read on air, to live feeds from a reporter in the field, the piece slowly moves out of the studio into the unfolding drama of earthlings overwhelmed by a superior intelligence and technology.
Despite the evening's comical intro and some chuckle-inducing local references ("The whole Pioneer Valley is full of poisonous black smoke") the War of the Worlds sequence is really quite gripping, eloquently scripted and given texture by Stephen Ball's shadowy lighting and Michael Pfeiffer's chilling soundscape.
The cadre of Shakespeare & Company regulars— Elizabeth Aspenlieder, Jonathan Croy, David Joseph, Josh Aaron McCabe, Dana Harrison and Scott Renzoni—play all the parts in the drama and double as the studio performers. They are, in effect, a repertory company like the Mercury Theatre, offering a light-and-dark entertainment that, I promise, won't scare the bejesus out of you.
War of the Worlds: Friday-Sunday through Nov. 6, Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox, (413) 637-3353, shakespeare.org.