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War of the Worlds as It's Meant to Be

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Anticipation was high last night as crowds gathered in the gorgeously restored lobby of the new Los Angeles Theater Center downtown. The just-re-opened theater complex, which now houses five separate theaters, is in the throes of a rebirth after much politicking and red tape left the theater complex sitting nearly silent for years.

Although the Opening festival features many excellent companies, we were beyond thrilled to learn that the New York-based SITI Company would be performing their long-running radio play of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds. SITI is well-known for its rigorous physical training courses and its theory of Viewpoints - training that focuses on movement and how each actor can make movement choices that allow them to work dynamically with an ensemble.

This training was on full display last night: on a fairly empty stage (short of microphones, a piano and a few chairs) actors made bold movement choices throughout the performance. Sitting down wasn't just sitting down, it was lynx-like, legs crossed sexily, taut. When several actors turned their backs to the audience during a particularly tense scene, the movement of their necks and heads and shoulders, even as they uttered no lines, pulled us in, made the supposed Martian landing all the more real. When script pages are dropped by each actor as they progress through the radio-play, they are not merely dropped; they are simultaneously let go, pages fluttering to the floor, creating their own movement, their own controlled chaos. The stage, littered with more and more pages as the play races forward, signifies not only the play's progression but the unity of the actors, the frantic pace with which they must work to keep up with the newly scribbled lines that, once read, are cast to the ground in favor of the next lines that must be read.

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SITI is also well-known for composing a scene in such a way that what you see before you is as cool as a perfectly captured photograph, as artfully rendered as a perfectly composed painting. All of which is quite easy when you have gorgeous backdrops and intricate stage sets. SITI relies on none of these easy tricks. Their actors create the compositions with their sheer presence, their physicality, their movement. These qualities reached the height of their powers when Orson Welles lights a cigar toward the end of the play. Just as the Martian landing reaches fever-pitch, just when we begin to understand how people could have thought this was real and fled their homes all those years ago when War of the Worlds first aired on radio, the smoke from his cigar rises up, above the players. Above the set and the stage. As all communication with the outside world becomes lost, all the lights fade, except for Welles and his cigar smoke that rises perfectly, ominously, above all. Silence, then blackness takes the stage.

Just as boldly as we were sucked in at the beginning, we are thrust back into the "oh it was just a play" reality, as the radio players pack up their scripts, put their shoes back on, and pat each other on the back for a job well-done. Well-done, indeed.

There is much to debate about how vital such a venue is in the face of the exploding downtown real estate and retail scene. There are many questions to be raised about the viability of keeping five theaters full each week and contributing, in a real way, to the theater scene. Can this theater be successful after so many difficult years? Which companies will perform week in and week out and will downtowners and LA residents flock to see them again and again? All good questions. All in good time. But for one night, we preferred to let all of that go and focus on SITI Company's brilliant performance of War of the Worlds. We can't wait to see what LATC has for us next.

War of the Worlds
Saturday @ 8pm & 10:30pm
Sunday @ 3pm
The New LATC
514 South Spring Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013

Photo via LATC