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War of the Worlds

Reviewed by Leonard Jacobs

One doesn't normally associate Anne Bogart's work with comedy, but "War of the Worlds"—a meditation on Orson Welles' life more than his infamous 1938 radio broadcast—revels in mirth and merriment. Yet there's a sadness too, first bubbling up from Naomi Iizuka's time-traveling script, and then by Stephen Webber, who not only plays Welles, but also embodies Bogart's vision of an artist whose genius peaked too soon. Though Welles remains the same age—ageless, really—throughout the piece, Webber, Bogart, and Iizuka show us the emotional innards of a man forever tormented by the shadow of his youthful brilliance.

As Bogart says in her program notes, Welles, who died in 1985, is perhaps best remembered "as a fat man on talk shows who also appeared in advertisements for wine," thus delivering unwarranted obscurity to his many artistic achievements. This would include his Mercury Theatre work at the Great Depression's height, the "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast that brought hysteria to America's streets, and "Citizen Kane," still widely regarded as the finest film of all time.

Yet Bogart doesn't stop there, digging ever deeper into the Welles iconography and biography. Thus, moving through Neil Patel's spare, stylish setting, Akiko Aizawa, J. Ed Araiza, Will Bond, Ellen Lauren, Tom Nelis, and particularly Barney O'Hanlon play the people and puppets who populate and occasionally popularize Welles' wild world.

It's well known that Welles' last word was "Thorne"—referring to a Chicago Art Institute room holding special inspiration for him. Comparisons to "Rosebud" from "Citizen Kane," then, are in order. Still, this "War of the Worlds" is more than a theatrical documentary about a mid-century icon. It's the study of a complex, highly elusive artisan, whose internal workings collided and collaborated—like worlds—inside the mind of one remarkable artist.

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