Performance Network offers a great view of "Mars"
photo courtesy of Performance Network
But what we don’t know is how we might have responded if we were among those who thought the world was about to end — a topic explored, in ways both comical and dramatic, in Joseph Zettelmaier’s “It Came From Mars,” now having its world premiere at Performance Network.
The folks involved are a second-rate company of radio performers who’ve gathered to rehearse a new show: pompous director/writer Quentin (Wayne David Parker); oafish lead actor George (Joey Albright); ditzy party-girl ingenue Delores (Alysia Kolascz); and sound effects technician Werner (Jacob Hodgson). Wrangling them all is Maude (Morgan Chard), an underappreciated receptionist who’s sent to persuade Quentin’s ex-wife, Julia (Sandra Birch), to come fill in for the company’s lead actress at the last minute. But the assembled group doesn’t get too far into Quentin’s script when they hear a portion of Welles’ broadcast and, well, freak out.
While the setup may sound like the stuff of farce, “Mars” is more aptly described as a smart comedy with some dramatic moments. In fact, the production’s most farcical scene is its weakest, coming near the close of the first act. Two separate arguments break out simultaneously between two character pairs (Julia and Quentin on one side, George and Werner on the other); the unnatural, self-conscious cadence of their exchanges — timed so we can hear everything that’s said — as well as the slow wind-up into physically comproming positions pulled me out of the story, so that I was suddenly hyper-aware of actors acting and executing choreography.
Yet the reason this unnecessary detour into slapstick sticks out is because Zettelmaier’s generally tight, focused script is otherwise packed with witty moments and lines that work far more effectively. Plus, director Tony Caselli and his dream-team cast find comic potential in even the simplest lines (like Birch’s hilariously droll delivery of, “Perhaps this little biscuit could do the role,” referring to Kolascz).
All the actors are outstanding, but Hodgson, playing a young German immigrant in a time when Germans were viewed with suspicion, often threatens to steal the show — particularly during the second act, when fear causes Werner to act on his feelings for Delores.
Chard, meanwhile, is pitch-perfect as the company’s voice of reason, while Birch uses her larger-than-life charisma to make Julia a fierce force of nature. Albright oozes blowhard bluster (and later, paranoia) with conviction, and Kolascz — who more than delivers on hysterical comedic moments with Hodgson — skillfully, subtly hints from the start that there’s more to Delores than meets the eye. Finally, Parker, as the height-sensitive artist with delusions of grandeur, conveys his character’s more vulnerable side when Quentin and Julia finally have a heart-to-heart.
This, like all the other moments in “Mars,” happen in a thrust stage configuration, so the actors are only feet away from the audience. Caselli cashes in on this close intimacy so that the audience feeds off the energy, fear, excitement and chaos experienced by the characters, and he also manages to use a small space efficiently, so that it never feels like too tight a squeeze.
The backdrop’s designer is Janine Woods Thoma, who offers a nicely realized take on a 1930s radio station rehearsal room. Sally L. Converse-Doucette’s muted-palette costumes stylistically reflect character, era, and the national mood during the Great Depression, with few-to-no bright colors except for Delores’ red coat, which we see near the play’s end. And Charlie Sutherland’s props — particularly Werner’s tools of the trade — complete the illusion of being immersed in the past.
Yes, I enjoyed the play’s second act more than the first — the exposition’s done with at that point, of course, and the characters are all reacting to Welles’ broadcast, which is the real meat of the matter — but overall, I laughed often and found much to enjoy throughout “Mars.”
I wondered, too, where Zettelmaier, who seems to get better with each play, might take us next.