Sunday, April 3, 2011

Herrmann, Welles, War, Time, Art(ifice)

Bernard Herrmann, the greatest of all film composers, died on Christmas Eve, 1975, expelling his final breath, as legend has it, shortly after completing the score for
Taxi Driver, his final masterpiece. Were Herrmann still with us we'd be celebrating his 100th birthday this June. The coming of the Herrmann centenary was the first prompt for the Art of Time Ensemble's production of The War of The Worlds, which opened at Harbourfront Centre's Enwave Theatre in Toronto on Thursday and closes this afternoon. I attended last night, along with a packed house that included Micheal Ondaatje and Atom Egoyan. Yet, since the original Mercury Theatre/CBS Radio broadcast did not actually feature much in the way of original music from Herrmann, Art of Time decided to preface their man event with a marvellous surprise: a suite of Herrmann's film music inventively pastiched and arranged by Dan Parr, accompanied by a wonderful montage of images from the films referenced. Thus, as the music undulates with doomed romanticism, shrieks and bellows, whirlpools and crashes, the paths of Marion Crane and Travis Bickle, Max Cady and Charles Foster Kane, cross in dream-space; Cary Grant's drunk driving leads to Robert Ryan's wintry footprints which lead to Jimmy Stewart's endless descent; plumes of NYC steam merge with the smoke of burning books; and Klaatu disintegrates rifles gripped by baffled US troops over and over in a lulling apocalyptic rhythm.

What followed intermission was a condensed recreation of Orson Welles' (in)famous 30 October, 1938 alien invasion radio drama. The stage became a studio, occupied by the Ensemble, conducted, as was the Herrmann suite, by Art of Time Artistic Director Andrew Burashko, a trio of actors, including Don McKellar in the Welles roles, and Foley maestro John Gzowski, all of them in period dress, shirt sleeves rolled up, Luckys dangling from their lips, huddling around elegant chrome microphone stands under a suspended glowing sign announcing that we are ON THE AIR. I loved it when all the musicians joined in the vocal hubub to scream together in deathly agony the alien slaughter of earthlings commences, some of them cracking up while doing so. The Brechtian dissonance between the visual and aural experience made for superb entertainment: laughs when eyes were open, chills when shut. Gzowski was inevitably the star of the show, darting silently in stocking feet between a dozen or more bizarre devices, including, of course, a Theremin. It took a moment to adapt to McKellar, given that some degree of imitation is inevitable and he simply doesn't possess Welles' full-bodied resonance, but his cadences were nearly impeccable, his readings compelling, and the prankster's focus he conveyed while instructing his collaborators his impatient gesture and eye contact added to the sense of Halloween mischief.

The most captivating passage of The War of the Worlds however arrived with the broadcast's final section (the one I completely forgot about), in which the mock-live reportage falls away and is replaced by what is virtually a monologue, backed by eerie underscoring, from a lone survivor of the Martian attacks describing in past-tense his journey through the ruins of New York and New Jersey. This part was read by Nicholas Campbell, whose hair has turned white sometime in the past few years, and who settled in under spotlight and delivered a performance of engrossing intimacy, at once playing it for the microphone and, more subtly, the watching audience.


Bunched Undies said...

What a wonderful evening!
I understand Mr. McKellar's plight. I used to sit in front of a cassette recorder and try to emulate Welles' "full-bodied resonance", but I could barely muster Everett Sloan's nasal whine.
Great article, thank you.

JB said...

My Orson Welles is only slightly better than my Hoagy Carmichael. Though I seem to have mastered an impersonation of the youngest daughter in Dogtooth when she calls her sister Bruce... Thanks for reading!

Bunched Undies said...

LOL...hopefully you've not attempted dentistry with exercise equipment...

JB said...

God, no. But sometimes in the mornings when time is tight I try to floss while doing push-ups.

Anonymous said...

About those impersonations: Try speaking slightly sideways into a 2-quart aluminum pan held with your right hand against your cheek. You can move the pan about on your cheek to modulate resonance. Use your left hand to direct your voice into the pan. A 2- or even 4-quart pan works especially well for Winston Churchill...practice makes perfect.x,Shu Zin

JB said...

Shu Zin, thanks so much for the advice and encouragement, but could you please be more specific in your instructions?

I like your name.