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A Review of The UC Department of Theatre’s Mercury, Mars and Mayhem

At 8 PM on October 30, 1938, people all throughout America tuned in to the popular radio program The Mercury Theatre on the Air expecting to listen to another one of the famous theater company’s much lauded radio adaptations of theater’s greatest plays. Instead, they listen in on an orchestra playing at the Plaza Hotel in New York. New bulletins then begin to interrupt the programming declaring that alien forces had begun to invade the South. Panic-stricken, millions of citizens flock to the streets or barricade themselves inside their homes thinking that their much feared “invasion” had come to reality.

In another part of New York, the staff and actors of the worst radio station in the city, WTSE, hear of the news and prepare themselves for the inevitable: by popping open the wine bottles and partaking in frenzied revelry! In drunken stupor and stripped off their clothing, these people tearing themselves from the bounds of civilized thought and exposing their true selves upon the realization that death is at their doorstep in the form of a green-skinned Martian.

But, amidst this carousing, hoping to still uplift their station’s dire condition, they parallel their own “popular” program, Casanova in Space, all the while unawares that they have, in fact, been part of the world’s greatest, most thought-provoking hoax. And, in the present time, audiences got to experience the panic and thrill of a group of people’s attempt to reconcile with their apparent demise against the backdrop of the 1938 “Panic Broadcast” in the world-premiere of thespian/director/writer Paul Jacques’ Mercury, Mars and Mayhem.

Produced by the UC Riverside’s Department of Theatre, the play was chosen among plays submitted by MFA graduate students as part of the department’s ongoing endeavor to continuously showcase works created by students and alumni. According to the play’s notes, Jacques was inspired to create this hilarious scenario during a rehearsal for a staged reading of Orson Welles’ pioneering science fiction novel and the “Panic Broadcast’s” plotline War of the Worlds.

An actor started to ham-up his performance and turn his attention to his female co-stars when it came to Jacques that it would be quite a disaster should an actual radio play had been on-going and an incompetent technician turned on to the Mercury program without hearing the initial disclaimer. Panic would definitely ensue! But, the question would be how a host of eclectic character would react to the notion of their impending doom. What social dispositions would they strip off? What realizations would they attain?

And, finally, how will their relationships transform upon learning that it has all been a huge joke? Considering this, Jacques’ play not only shows an amusing alternative to the typical invasion storyline (one that has been reused and rehashed, indubitably) but also explores social tensions that are remarkably torn down at the approach of the most fateful hour and how this, in fact, creates more sincere human connections. At the helm of this production is veteran UCR director and Department Chair Eric Barr who lends his tremendous artistic talent to the realization of this production.

What is very tricky about this play is that too much attention to the hilarity and witty banter scattered throughout would entail a loss of the play’s deeper meaning. At the hands of Barr, though, the play manages to teeter in a delicate balance between outright comedy and poignant sincerity, not losing its energy that bursts into the play’s climactic end. Rapid and rambunctious, he arranges the speed of the play like a conductor would: creating a tempo that echoes the frenzied speed and harrowed slowness of the frightened people searching for help in the streets of New York.

The set and costume design by Haibo Yu and Bonnie Cherrie, respectively, also provides a muted backdrop for the flurry on stage. Realistic in design, it doesn’t obtrude with the acting and the directorial treatment. Nonetheless, it give the audience a feeling of realism that keeps the play from alienating its audience. The lighting design provided by Ryann Del Prado and Glen Dunzweiler is also kept a minimum, with the stage awash in simply yellow washes that serves as a quiet accompaniment to the characters’ crazy dealings.

But above all, what stood out in the production are the crisp performances of the all-student cast, presenting a winning ensemble performance—a necessary quality when dealing with quick-witted, multi-character plays. Starring in this production are Dennis D’Antin who plays the big boss of the radio station, Mr. Tupman; Adrian Centeno as Forrie the awkward assistant; William Danforth Lindham as Kit Fugard, the over-the-top actor and his co-star, B-actress Sadie played by Tamra Francis Kilcher, and Tiffany Cheng as the loud and hysterical Fanny.

At the beginning of the play, we see all these characters, seeming stereotypes of the many personas of the American ‘30s. Standing-out amidst this crowd of unlikely characters is Fanny, who is the opposite of the female personification of the era. During the course of the play, we view their transformations. These reversals of characters are effectively portrayed as the actors manage to display a smooth and believable transition from stock personas into their more “real” characters.

This could only be achieved if the actors have a definite characterization of their roles, bringing to mind the creation of a complete back story and an explicit objective, one such that would propel the story. What stood out was Cheng’s portrayal of Fanny. Almost bordering on over the top, she manages to temper her performance with a relatable heart that makes her character most believable. Much like Fanny, the character of Kit is also shown initially as this larger-than-life actor.

This almost typically slapstick characterization would mean downfall should it be played for laughs, but Lindham’s performance is well thought out and portrays a human aspect, that much like Fanny, we can relate to. Another performance of note is D’Antin’s Mr. Tupman. His most affecting scene with Fanny as they make a promise to each other reinforces D’Antin’s repute as an astounding actor who can balance comedy and poignancy without seeming too cheesy. As an ensemble cast, we should also consider the tempo of the play and how these actors play out each other’s beats.

Initially fast-paced on account of the comedy, the banter is crisp, clear, and high in energy. It also helps that Barr blocked the first scenes in such a way that follows the lively exchanges of the characters. Towards the end, it gradually slows down to accommodate the realizations of the characters, giving the audience the time to wallow in the emotional aspects of the play. The blocking also moves with this slower pace, allowing the actors to also focus on the emotional challenges at hand.

Although at some parts the play seems to feel harried, the effective collaboration of the actors and the director, as well as the rest of the artistic staff, creates a well produced play that successfully captures the attention of the audience. The play in itself doesn’t attempt to be too profound that it seems pretentious. It is deep sincerity and the successful balancing of comedy and deep insight that makes this production of a well-worn topic both refreshing and worth remembering.

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