By Marcus Wolland
Directed by Zina Bleck and Herb Tax
Produced by Zemfira Stage
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Never will there be a last word on Orson Welles, now recognized as the 20th Century’s art film genius. The man as material is too rich. In the East Coast premiere of Seattle playwright Marcus Wolland’s The Magnificent Welles, Jay Tilley shows he has the courage, voice range and talent to take on such a tour-de-force role.
Set in a Rio de Janeiro hotel room in 1942, Welles, between phone calls from RKO studios, talks directly to the audience about his early life growing up an artistic young man. Now hailed as a 27-year-old film prodigy at work on a U.S. government war effort film in Brazil, the stakes are higher after winning a best screenplay academy award in 1941 for Citizen Kane. It’s a tipping point in his career under Hollywood movie moguls who rule his artistic freedom like fascist dictators.
The play moves forward through phone conversations between Welles and George Schaefer of RKO. Through Tilley’s facial reactions, we see Welles’ anger grow from quiet anger to blistering rage. First, the studio cuts 17, then 44 minutes from The Magnificent Ambersons. The final cut, which Welles was denied by contract because Citizen Kane lost money, reduces 132 minutes to 88. According to Welles, the best scene in a movie “better than Citizen Kane,” is lost on the cutting room floor. Then a “happy ending” is tacked on to please World War II audiences in Pomona, more interested in escapist musicals than serious films. Later RKO burned the cut negatives for lack of storage space. At this climactic telling, Tilley pulls out all stops on his resonant voice in a cry from the heart. His masterwork is destroyed. It’s a moment for cringing.
More good performing moments: Tilley steps into Welles’ past by stepping off the platform to make direct audience eye contact. In flashbacks, Tilley, who has a bit of the story teller bug, gives us a riveting close up of a man’s melt down, the reality loss of innocence, what became one of Welles’ favorite movie themes.
Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1915, Welles grew up in Chicago a child prodigy with a love for the art of painting. But what he treasured most became “inaccessible and unachievable.”…. “It was just another Lost Eden,” Orson tells us. Thus, Zemfira Stage’s add-on Lost Eden to the original title, The Magnificent Welles is clear.
Here are just some of the insights that make sense of the man and good theater. His mother, a suffragette, and concert pianist, nurtured his love of Shakespeare. But at age eight, his desire to be a musician died with his mother. Before dying an alcoholic when Orson was 15, his philandering father instigated Orson’s learning magic tricks from vaudevillian magicians.
Instead of literally pulling rabbits out of hats, Tilley, with his voice, reenacts how Welles at age 16 discovered the magic of storytelling in Ireland. Welles made up stories about his experience and bluffed his way into his first acting job as a Shakespearean repertory actor at the Gate Theatre. But this is only the tip of his creative inventions. Obsessed with magic, Welles went to Haiti in the 1930s to change Shakespeare’s witchcraft scenes to voodoo for his Voodoo MacBeth. Performed with an all-black cast, at the famous Mercury Theatre, co-founded with John Houseman, the New York production was critically acclaimed and won Welles recognition as a director.
In the second act, the stories get even better. For a magician what could be more magical, Welles asks us, than radio’s disembodied voices casting millions of listeners under the spell of the spoken word? Using his resonant, spine-tingling voice to the max, Tilley has a great moment when he impersonates Welles in 1937 as the radio detective, The Shadow, or Lamont Cranston, the mysterious crime fighter with the maniacal laugh, who reads minds: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of man? Only the Shadow knows.” And, of course, mention is made of Welles as a radio personality leading the Mercury Theatre’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds that convinced millions of listeners that New Jersey was under Martian attack. Ironically, Tilley as Welles, tells us, becoming a celebrity worthy of Hollywood worship led to his downfall or another loss of Eden.
Even less well known but more intriguing in this compelling script are the stories about outfoxing government censorship of the pro-labor opera, The Cradle Will Rock. Then there’s the one on Welles outwitting his old friend, collaborator and arch rival, John Houseman, who almost sabotaged Citizen Kane. And how William Randolph Hearst’s boycott of Kane, along with the corporate climate, ruined the greatness in The Magnificent Ambersons..
Herb Tax lighting and sound designer, orchestrates dramatic lighting cues throughout, and heightens a magician’s familiar sign-off. “Now you see it……” Blackout. If Orson Welles were alive today, he would have loved it.
While Orson wasn’t modest about his own unique talents, Tilley as actor, producer and publicist appears humble. In promoting the Zemfira Stage and Vpstart Crow Productions, Tilley quotes the master of theater, Konstantin Stanislavsky: “Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.” With that philosophy, who can’t help loving an actor who succeeds in convincing us that Orson Welles, in spite of monstrous obstacles, elevated film making to an art?
(Running time: 90 minutes with 1 intermission). Lost Eden: The Magnificent Welles continues thru July 15 Friday, Saturday, July 6, 7, 13, 14, 8 p.m.; and Sundays, July 8 and 15, 7:30 p.m., at The Lyceum: Alexandria’s History Museum, (across from the Downtown Baptist Church), 201 South Washington St., Alexandria, VA 22314. Tickets: $15 adults; $10 students, seniors and military personnel. Cash or check only, payable at the door. For information, visit their website. Call Zemfira Stage, 703-318-0619 for directions.