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Reimagined ‘War of the Worlds’ Less Scary, More Comical Thanks to Puppetry Grad Student

Hollander has directed circus productions, bringing together performers of different disciplines to tell a story that focuses on the visual. In a theater production, the story itself takes a bigger role

Jaron Aviv Hollander is among the class of Gen Xers who grew up watching “The Muppet Show” in the late 1970s, laughing at Fozzie Bear’s jokes, feeling the urgency of Muppet News Flash, itching for chaos in Swedish Chef’s kitchen.

But the California native who’s now at UConn working on a puppet arts degree, says that while Jim Henson ended up a professional influence, there’s one big difference between the two of them: “I wanted to be Gonzo rather than perform with a Gonzo puppet. I wanted to be the performer.”

Yes, Hollander ’24 MFA wanted to do things like get shot out of a cannon, recite Shakespeare suspended in midair, and yodel while riding a motorized pogo stick – and for 30 years he did just that as a circus professional who performed, imagined, taught, and created physical theater and comedy throughout the world.

Like so many in his generation, though, the pandemic brought reevaluation, a turn toward puppetry, and the realization that, maybe, just perhaps, Pigs in Space was superior and could launch the next phase of his career.

Hilarity ensues even during alien invasion

Hollander says he came to UConn with a rough idea for his MFA project, one borne during the time of social distancing when he thought about doing a production entirely in hazmat suits, perhaps at a drive-in theater where audience members would listen to the show on the radio through car speakers.

Thinking about radio prompted thoughts of Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of “War of the Worlds,” he says, and the idea of turning it into a comedy using the premise in the Italian play, “The Servant of Two Masters,” to provide humor.

“War of the Worlds 2023: A Servant of Two Networks” is the latest show from Connecticut Reperetory Theatre and is showing in the Nafe Katter Theatre through Dec. 10. Hollander is creator and director, along with puppet designer.

“It’s not a complex story – aliens land, they attack, and then go away – but it’s one that’s entertaining and fun,” Hollander says. “There are some parts that are directly referential to the H.G. Wells book, and there’s a nod to Orson Welles’ radio play, which reportedly caused panic among listeners who took it as a news report.

“Newspapers overstated the panic,” he continues, “because they were threatened by radio, and Orson Welles played into that.”

This was about 18 months after the Hindenburg disaster, Hollander explains, and the start of breaking news and today what’s become the 24-hour news cycle.

Hollander’s version of “War of the Worlds” inserts the media as a comedic device: One of his characters has a job at both MsCBD (what audiences will recognize as MSNBC) and DOG News (or, FOX News).

Serving both outlets in the covering of an alien invasion brings hilarity.

With six human actors and about a dozen puppets of various types – including aliens E-Max and Zurn and a set that comes to life; yes, it kind of breathes – “War of the Worlds 2023” has no written script, save one or two monologues, a prologue, and an epilog.

Hollander says he’s worked with the cast since the spring to sharpen their improv and comedic skills, which means they take his basic plot points and bring their own creativity to the show.

“Improv seems scary and challenging, but I find it much more comforting to perform this kind of format because you can’t blow a line. And there’s enough structure in this story that you can always get back on track if you’ve gone far off script,” he says. “That’s the beauty of comedy, it’s recoverable. With improv, nothing can go wrong. It’s incredibly liberating as a comedic form.”

For the last 15 years, Hollander has directed circus productions, bringing together performers of different disciplines – think contortionists, acrobats, aerialists, and clowns – to tell a story that focuses on the visual. In a theater production, the story itself takes a bigger role.

“But there are some interesting similarities between the two as well, especially with this production,” he says. “Take, for instance, the costumes. In both, there’s a lot of focus on how the costumes function, how the actors move in them, and how durable they are. That’s incredibly important in the circus with the aerial equipment but in theater, too. In this play, the costumes help tell the story.”

While Hollander focuses on practical things like that, he says he likes to give his performers a stake in the show, asking them to contribute their creativity – like how they all collaborated to write the scripted components of “War of the Worlds 2023.”

He says he aims to give actors the “absolute minimum amount of structure.” It’s more rewarding for him and fulfilling for them.

“Besides,” he adds, nodding to a little purple creature named Gonzo, “there’s joy in absurdity.”

Tickets for “War of the Worlds 2023: A Servant of Two Networks” are available online.