Live Active Cultures

It's 2 p.m. Saturday, July 25, and Brian Feldman doesn't look well. He's been here at the Loving Hut ingesting vegan cuisine since 11 a.m. and is starting to appreciate the enormity of his Brian Feldman Eats Everything Off the Menu at Loving Hut performance after eating only 14 out of 64 offerings. While he stares gassily at a plate of deep-fried soy pseudo-seafood, Supreme Master TV smilingly sermonizes from the flat-panel screen above his head on humankind's potential to coexist peacefully with other life forms.

But despite the subtitles in seven languages, I don't catch a word. I'm a world away, where a populace worn down by the winds of war shut off their collective common sense and swallowed a media-manufactured hallucination hook, line and sinker; a time when an authoritative voice on a carefully crafted broadcast was enough to whip the citizenry into a battle frenzy. Long before the run-up to the Iraq war or the Rwandan genocide, Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre made America lose its shit with nothing more than a radio show.

I'm meeting with Erika Wilhite and Joseph Fletcher over a plate of shrimpless spring rolls to hear about the original dramatic interpretation of War of the Worlds that they're mounting in the Lowndes Shakespeare Center's Goldman Theater for two weekends starting this Friday, July 31. Part of Winter Park's recent independent theater boom (see Live Active Cultures, July 16), War of the Worlds follows Forbidden Fruit Productions' deflowerment last weekend on the adjacent Mandell stage via their debut presentation of My First Time.

Fear not if you only know H.G. Wells' seminal sci-fi story from the middling Spielberg film; the research has been taken care of for you. This production is a collaboration in every sense: There are two production companies (Play the Moment Productions in conjunction with Questionable Productions), two directors and two simultaneous tales being told. Philadelphian Fletcher has flown down to direct a meticulous re-creation of the 1938 radio play, down to the musical interludes and scripted production "mistakes," with a cast that includes Alan James Gallant, Brandon Roberts (Snack) and Frank McLain (The New Century).

In parallel, performers including Wilhite, Ryan Gigliotti and Sam Little will portray members of the public driven to apoplexy by the infamous simulated Martian invasion. They're evoking the era's mass hysteria through a mix of interpretive movement (based on the Viewpoints physical theater techniques) and first-person monologues drawn from sociologist Hadley Cantril's interviews with actual participants in the panic. This side of the show is directed by Aradhana Tiwari; you may know her from the Orlando Fringe, where she directed the First Baptist Church's best-selling stagings of It's a Wonderful Life, Little Women and Steel Magnolias, as well as Wilhite's mesmerizing accordion-and-insanity epic, X: The Rise and Fall of an Asylum Star.

This intricate combination of artists and styles all comes out of Fletcher, Tiwari and Wilhite, friends since graduate school, deciding to put on a show instead of going on vacation together. They found their performance space before they had a script. Fletcher's prior interest in the War of the Worlds story led them to research and develop the drama in cooperation with their "open-minded, patient" cast. The unconventional approach extends to the marketing campaign, which attempts to combine now-trendy Twittering with viral behind-the-scenes video for a virtual open rehearsal process.

The show's ultimate objective, as Fletcher expresses it, is to "expose the trick," to examine how ordinary people could be so affected by a work of fiction. It can be explained partially through context: The national audience was already anxious from the then-innovative breaking news bulletins that had begun interrupting their audio entertainment with news of European atrocities. On Oct. 30, 1938, the majority of the listening public tuned into the most popular music program of the day, only to encounter an ear-splitting yodeler. Millions switched over to the low-rated Mercury Theatre program, minutes after the disclaimer announcement that would have informed them that Armageddon wasn't really imminent. It's comforting to assume the resultant angst and unrest could only occur in the less-sophisticated past, but similar violent outbreaks accompanied copycat broadcasts in the 1950s and 1970s.

No explicit connection is made in this production to modern events, but the implications are obvious. Is the inclination to hysteria inherent in all humans? Do we choose what to believe, or do we allow the media to choose for us? Will this production successfully fuse so many diverse artistic impulses into a satisfying whole? Decide for yourself; as Orson Welles himself said, you shouldn't swallow everything that comes through the tap.

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