Closing this weekend are two shows that deal with fear: one a 1938 radio drama that set the world in a frenzy over a fictional alien invasion, the other a present-day analysis of condo-culture worries and insecurities.
A radio play is (obviously) intended to be delivered via radio, so putting one on stage presents some challenges. They’re audio-action-packed, but visually there’s not a whole lot going on. Art of Time Ensemble’s stage production of Orson Wells’s infamous 1938 The War of the Worlds broadcast gets around this problem by showing us the radio studio in which the play is read, with gorgeous period costumes and props from designer Beth Kates, live musical performance directed by Andrew Burashko, surprising sound effects from foley artist John Gzowski, and some help from the audience’s own imagination.
While actors Nicholas Campbell, Marc Bendavid, and Sean Cullen (playing Wells himself) dutifully read their lines into the microphones before them, they maintain a casual air, even bordering on boredom. Meanwhile, we all know the effect their broadcast is having at home with listeners, who think the fictional news bulletins detailing an alien attack in New Jersey are real. The juxtaposition is delightfully entertaining, as is the nostalgia created by the actors’ vintage-feel voices.
The War of the Worlds actually comprises just the second half of Art of Time’s programme; the first is a medley of works by Bernard Herrmann, famous for scoring films like Citizen Kane, Psycho, Cape Fear, and Taxi Driver. While taking a back seat to the actors in the radio broadcast, this performance lets the Art of Time orchestra take centre stage. The pairing makes a perfect event for this fear-laced time of year. The fear in both halves of the show is quite simple: it’s the fear of death. But by hearing the soundtracks live and watching the behind-the-scenes antics, we’re let in on the joke, as if we were watching actor Robert Englund putting on his makeup to become Freddy Krueger—so all that fear actually makes for quite a light-hearted and entertaining evening.
Kat Sandler is one of Toronto’s sharpest and sought out playwrights, focusing on her generation of urban twenty- and thirty-somethings. While Wells used good old-fashioned monsters and heat rays to spook his audience, Sandler targets the more abstract fears of aging, responsibility, failure, and inadequacy.
In Delicacy, her latest at the Factory Studio Theatre, two married couples come together for a tension-filled evening of wine, whiskey, espresso, little Italian shortbread cookies, and swinging. Tanya (Tennille Read) and Mark (Andh Trithardt) live in Yorkville in an all-white condo filled with uncomfortable furniture and modern art, and two weeks after encountering free spirited husband and wife Len (Kaleb Alexander) and Colby (Kelly McCormack) at Wicked, they invite the couple to their home to help reignite their own sparks.
Needless to say, the night doesn’t go entirely as planned. A well-intentioned game to break the ice ends up leading to spilled secrets, traumas, and fears. Each character is essentially afraid—afraid of losing a partner, afraid of growing up, afraid of not living the life they had dreamed up for themselves. As always, Sandler creates characters that are incredibly witty but incredibly flawed, and her skill for dialogue keeps the play moving rapidly. The one-liners, gags, and awkward moments are played up with perfect timing from the cast, particularly Trithardt as the dry-humoured writer Mark.
Crowd-pleasing as it is, rule number one if you want to heighten a sense of fear in your audience is to make your characters sympathetic. Tanya has the biggest secret and the most at risk, but she’s also the hardest of the four to understand. Though she has one small moment of vulnerability she is generally cold, coming across as someone who inspires fear more than someone who suffers from it—and keeping us at a distance as a result.