Some of us are just not capable of being shocked anymore, no matter what happens in the remaining months of the year. So, if a news alert pops up on your phone that says alien spaceships have touched down in Plant City, is your next move to head for the hills or will you instead finish your drive-through order and see how it all plays out?
Into the disaster flick that is 2020 comes freeFall Theatre’s production of “War of the Worlds,” an adaptation of Orson Welles’ famed 1938 radio broadcast, itself an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ famed Martian invasion novel from 1898. But this production, written by the company’s Musical Director Michael Raabe and Artistic Director Eric Davis is a creature unto itself. The original novel served as an allegory for 19th century British imperialism and the radio play, scripted as a series of news reports, caused a mass panic across the U.S. as some listeners believed the invasion was real. But Raabe and Davis’s take emerges in a very different world from Wells or Welles, and the freeFall capitalizes on the fact that surreal times call for a bit good old-fashioned laughter.
“When performances were halted in March, we came up with numerous options for digital programming,” says Matthew McGee, freeFall’s Outreach and Marketing Director. “One of the ideas was to create a radio play of ‘War of the Worlds’ that could be downloaded by patrons.”
But for a theatre searching for a means of survival during the pandemic, a completely virtual experience wasn’t going to keep the lights on. Davis reached out to Raabe and, McGee says, “they worked together to create a hybrid of radio performance, stage show and drive-in multimedia experience.”
If that sounds like a lot, it is. Tackling this mission meant freeFall would need to harness some of the resources it already had (a very decent parking lot and a crack team of problem solvers) and create ones it didn’t, like an outdoor stage.
“Building the stage and creating the tech were big challenges, both artistically and financially,” McGee says, noting that the outdoor space forWotWis not some thrown-together plywood platform. “We had to create a whole new theatre.”
Then new stage is a sturdy, fully rigged performance are that looks as though it could well outlast these lousy, socially distanced times.
“We hope the investment pays off,” McGee says. “We plan to present future socially distanced performances until it’s safe to return to indoor productions.”
The refreshing thing about this production, though, is that nothing about it feels particularly limited by the circumstances in which we’re living. Certainly Raabe and Davis’s script threads COVID as well as the climate crisis into the narrative, but the show holds up as a unique theatrical adventure at any time: before, during and after a pandemic. The show is anchored by the live quartet of announcers/performers cheekily played by Eileen B. Lymus, James Martin Roberts, Robert Spence Gabriel and Heather Baird, and supported by an off-stage band, and a variety of virtual correspondents who tune in via screens placed around the space. Genre/era-spanning musical mash-ups cleverly arranged to contribute to the vintage vibe, digital animations and vignettes keep the audience keyed into the absurdity of it all.
If this production is how freeFall deals with significant challenges and obstacles, it should not be surprising that the company stands out as one of the reasons little St. Pete is emerging as an artistic powerhouse.
freeFall’s “War of the Worlds” runs through November 22. For more, visit freefalltheatre.com.