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Listening to the Dark: The SITI Company Stages Welles

WNYC reviews a double bill of two “radio plays”: a reenactment of "War of the Worlds," and an unsettling, deconstructed "Macbeth" using Welles’ original play script.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

In 1938 Orson Welles convinced a good portion of the country to hear what wasn’t there: the sound of Martians invading America.  Director Anne Bogart and the SITI Company (a contemporary theater company founded by Bogart and Tadashi Suzuki) pay homage to both Welles and the medium in which he first made an impact with a double bill of two staged “radio plays”: a reenactment of "War of the Worlds," and an unsettling, deconstructed "Macbeth"—a play all about deception and seeing what is not there—using Welles’ original play script.

The works evolved out of Bogart’s fascination with Welles as a towering American artist and icon: “I wanted to stand on his shoulders and see far.”

Bogart is interested in the arresting synthesis between sound and stage, and what happens dramatically when what people see diverges with what they hear.  It was intriguing to watch, in Dance Theatre Workshop’s roomy loft, actors create one world—elegantly choreographed—for the watching audience, and a second that is meant only for the space between our ears.  “Your imagination fills in the gaps,” says Bogart.

At first, "War of the Worlds" is played for laughs—we see the actors coping, hilariously, with a script that Welles is still working on during the performance (the famous destination for the invasion, Grover’s Mills, New Jersey, is chosen when he opens a AAA map and stabs a spot at random). And then, just as they’ve got you chortling along, the actors are suddenly completely caught up in the power of their own fantasy—as are we.

For all that it is sixty years old, Bogart thinks the work has a primal power:

“It’s entertaining, it’s fun, but suddenly there’s that feeling, which I think is atavistic in all of us, that’s ancient, that has to do with a certain terror—we touch on that.” SITI company has toured its version of Welles’ trangressive event extensively; it clearly seems to resonate in today’s world of Code Orange alerts and terrorism—or whatever constitutes “the Martians” for us now.

In Bogart’s (and co-director Darron L. West's) conception, no sooner does the broadcast of "War of the Worlds" end than Welles sends his exhausted and cranky actors to an empty warehouse to rehearse their next production—the Scottish play (it is bad luck, in theatre parlance to say Mc---). The tense relationships among the players (there’s been a little drinking, and “Welles” seems to be having an affair with one of the women) blurs the lines of Shakespeare’s text, so once again we are seeing, and hearing, more than is there. And the building itself seems slightly haunted (though actually it’s Welles, playing with his actors, as well as his public); the lights go on and off, and there are strange noises. But as with "War of the Worlds," this, Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, completely alters our inner and outer worlds. According to Bogart, Shakespeare—every bit as bold in his day as Welles was in his—used real incantations for the lines spoken by his three “hags.” And incantations, spoken in the right order, have power. “If you listen, you will be changed.”

In the end, both "War of the Worlds" and "Macbeth" are about fear and fate (“something wicked this way comes,” intones the Second Witch). With Halloween just around the corner, both plays are a reminder that, like "MacBeth’s" reeling porter, we let the devils in once a year, in the hopes that they don’t plague us the rest of the time. Bogart is fond of quoting a line by the late Harold Pinter that she feels applies to these works and what she hopes to convey: “He wanted to write plays about “the feeling of putting your hand in a dark closet.”

The SITI Company productions of "War of the Worlds" and "Macbeth" are at Dance Theater Workshop on Friday and Saturday, October 15th and 16th. To hear an interview with Anne Bogart, click the link above.

Produced by:

Sarah Montague

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