Review of Welles play in Paris
Leslie Weisman has graciously sent along this report on the Paris production of Richard France�s�Welles play which has captivated theatergoers across Europe, but apparently, as with most Welles projects, it has yet to find backers for a U. S. production.
��* * * * * * * * * * ��OBEDIENTLY YOURS, ORSON WELLES�In Paris�By Leslie Weisman�Earlier this month I had the great pleasure of seeing this play, written by the esteemed Welles scholar and author Richard France (Orson Welles on Shakespeare, 2001; The Theatre of Orson Welles, 1977) and adapted for the French stage by actor and writer Jacques Collard. "Obediently Yours, Orson Welles" has been translated into French, German, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Polish, and Italian, and staged in as many countries. Failing a close-to-home venue, I did the next best thing, seeing it in a city that he loved and, judging by the full house and enthusiastic, sympathetic reception, one that remembers him, and returns the sentiment:�Paris. [This may be the appropriate place to note that I am a friend of Mr. France, and have worked with him. That said, what follows is my honest appraisal of seeing the play.]� Conveniently situated about a block from the Champs-Elys�es Cl�men�eau metro station, the Th��tre Marigny�s Salle Popesco, the "modern" half of the two-theater complex, seating about 300, is an ideal venue for an intimate portrayal of Welles.�The play is a marvel of economy that takes us through his life from the perspective of his last year, as his attempts to obtain financing for DON QUIJOTE from friends (in some cases, this appellation should be seen as carrying invisible quotation marks) and associates are set against a carefully structured, temporally shifting shadow play of episodes from his life and career.�Not an overly rosy portrait � no one would accuse the author of trying to whitewash Welles�it is nonetheless an intimate, affecting, and affectionate one.� The setting is a recording studio, where Welles is making the infamous radio commercials which, while essential sources of money that would allow him to make his own films, perhaps inevitably earned him the derision of the mean-spirited and the uninitiated � another reason this play should be on everyone�s play list, and not just Wellesians�.��
Narrated by the great man (played by Jean Claude Drouot), at turns directing, and reluctantly or resignedly accepting direction from recording engineer Mel � whose other-duties-as-assigned are to return to the coughing, wheezing Welles his "voice of God sound" via a machine called an Aphex � we also see Welles in other gestalts and from other angles, much like his beloved and multi-faceted Thorne Rooms. In a concept that tellingly frames the narrative, we hear him in a haunting off-voice speak passages from DON QUIJOTE, often painfully apt, and to heartbreaking effect. (The QUIJOTE subtext embraces even Mel, whose common-sense wisdom makes him an irresistible Sancho Panza counterpart.) In another Wellesian touch, we sometimes see him step outside the play to address the audience directly, at one point directing to us that rueful observation, "Isn�t it remarkable: there are so many of me, and so few of you?"
�One of the most striking components of the mise-en-sc�ne is the way music is used to delineate and situate themes and characters, as they are called up in Orson�s memory.�As the play opens, we hear sounds of a Spanish guitar accompanied by brisk and rhythmic foot taps and hand claps, evoking Welles� love of the country and its people.�This quintessential flamenco challenge sets the stage for a corrida de toros of sorts between Welles and his eternally elusive financial quarry.�We watch with increasing discomfort as his phone calls to Alessandro Tasca and Steven Spielberg � in the person, to be sure, of the latter�s assistant, "Vashti" � repeatedly leave him with empty hands.�As in his life, uncertainty and disappointment are offset by humor and satisfaction; at one point, he tells with undisguised glee of the "pigeon" he caught � the result: a check in his pocket for his next film � with a nod of Churchill�s head.�There is also the occasional, unexpected mixture of the two, as when Welles gets Mel to recall the enemy "walking machines" in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, which Mel thinks incredibly ingenious, until Welles patiently leads him to connect them with the method of transport used by his own "War of the Worlds" Martians some forty years before.����Names well known to Wellesians in connection with his life and work stud the play, in some cases as brief head-nods (Barrymore, Moorehead, MacLiammoir, Olivier, Carson, Parsons), but in others, as full-fledged narrative subjects packing an emotional wallop.�Rita Hayworth is one of these:�A rare sweetness imbues his off-voice recollection of his early infatuation with the raven-haired pin-up girl; an unspeakable sadness and regret inform his recollection of their last meeting, when Alzheimer�s rendered her incapable of even recognizing him. "Death lay on her like an untimely frost / Upon the sweetest flower in all the field," he quietly intones.�You could have heard a pin drop.����We hear at some length of the Isaac Woodard episode that effectively ended Welles� radio career:�"I had a new distinction," he offers wryly, with a thoughtful puff on his ever-present cigar:�"The world�s youngest has-been."�Not surprisingly, as the story is not well known, people seemed to be brought up short by this one.�They could be observed listening intently as Drouot/Welles recounted the history, reading from the soldier�s affidavit and chronicling the perhaps inevitable, but for him, somehow utterly unforeseen, disintegration of what was left of his already collapsing radio career.�(Accounting at least in part for the audience�s reaction, it no doubt helped that the tale was preceded by Welles� impassioned outburst upon being told that the racist cop who poked the young man�s eyes out has just died, and his hometown paper wants a statement:�"I hope he rots in hell," says Welles, with deathly evenness.)���And of course, we hear about the films:�the snooty reactions to OTHELLO ("If Shakespeare were alive today, he�d be writing for movie-of-the-week," he declares with such certainty you don�t doubt it for a moment); the missed opportunity to milk what was to be the cash cow of THE THIRD MAN ("There�s never been such a hit over there.�It�s still playing in Vienna...�I could have bankrolled ten OTHELLOs if I�d opted to share in the profits"); the outraged puzzlement of Harry Cohn upon screening LADY FROM SHANGHAI ("Harry just sat there, his mouth open, staring at the screen. �I�ll give a thousand dollars to anyone who can explain this piece of shit to me!��Say what you will," observes Welles with a wicked smile and a contented puff, obviously relishing the memory, "the man had a way with words").�
��I don�t want to spoil the rest for those who plan to attend the show; I will suggest that, as rewarding and enjoyable as it was, and as impressive the acting and staging, the production might have benefited from a second pair of eyes and sensibilities (the gifted M. Collard, perhaps in emulation and in honor of the inimitable Mr. Welles, also directed). While devoted Wellesians may have quibbles here or there�such an ambitious and richly textured show will needs be seen through the lens of each person�s cherished, and sometimes hard-earned, personal and professional perspectives�I think it should, and will, be appreciated by even the most discriminating among us.