The threat of alien invasion is very much with us now, as it actually happened on Jan. 6, 2021. It was a worn-out Hollywood cliché that when aliens invaded they would naturally descend on Washington DC, in preference to any other place on Earth. Little did we know that the B-grade movies of the 50s were right after all. The aliens did invade, and they were us.

The aliens in War of the Worlds were given what the aliens of Jan 6 deserved: firepower of the utmost lethality. Unfortunately for Earth, the Martians were impervious to our weapons. The story originated by H.G. Wells became the most famous radio broadcast of all time in the hands of Orson Welles. What we have now in Austin is an adaptation by Jarrett King of that radio broadcast, presented as a play starring Marc Pouhé as Orson Welles.

This is, in fact, the first in a series of world-premiere plays commissioned by Penfold Theatre Company. Each will reimagine an old classic for a diverse Austin audience. This one, by Austin-born playwright King, features a mostly black cast.

The premise of the radio broadcast is also a concept that everyone now is familiar with (even though the original was done in 1938). It is the concept of Fake News! The American public is (sadly) world renowned for its gullibility. In 1938 many listening to the broadcast were so certain Martians really had invaded that they acted on it. Welles heard reports of mass stampedes, of suicides, and of angered listeners threatening to shoot him on sight. “If I’d planned to wreck my career,” he told several people at the time, “I couldn’t have gone about it better.” It is estimated 1.7 million people heard it that night before Halloween; 1.2 million of them became frightened or disturbed. Would we fall into the same trap again because of fake news? Ask everyone who voted for DT in the last election. The gullible minority is still present, but now deadly dangerous, just like the Martians. As one important line spoken in this play states, “Fear is our most powerful natural resource. Our voices are the most dangerous weapons on the planet.” King, like Welles, has done his job well (pun intended).

Backed by an esteemed cast, Pouhé is clearly in command here as he gives us a fully charged version of Orson Welles. The overall effect of the play is magnificent, and it was refreshing that the audience was just ‘with’ the cast throughout, not distracted by any special effects.

The notes from the Director, Marcus McQuiter, explain a lot. He has, it appears, come back in time to direct this as his notes are dated 2249. “From our perch in the 23rd century, having established peaceful relations with over 27 non-Earth based sentient species, it is easy to look back and wonder what Wells, Welles, and King were on about.” Time will tell.

War of the Worlds is being performed at Ground Floor Theatre in Austin.

Lead photo (l to r): Kenah Benefield, Yunina Barbour-Payne, John Christopher, Marc Pouhé, Dane Parker.

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books.

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