A grand practitioner of theatrical showmanship, Orson Welles would likely have delighted in the season's final production of Edison Theatre's Ovations! Series -- the SITI Company's War of the Worlds, a wildly ambitious meditation on the actor/director's outsized life and art. Far more an essayistic collage than a straight-ahead biographical narrative, the play boldly melds fact and fiction, moving fluidly back and forth in time and providing multiple perspectives -- by turns critical, sympathetic, self-serving -- on key events. Cleverly aping the structure of Citizen Kane, War of the Worlds pretends to search for a singular answer to the riddle of Welles' life, but the production actually emphasizes ambiguity and complexity: It preserves the necessary mystery by provocatively exploring but never quite explaining the magician's entrancing illusions.
The play's title, of course, references the famous 1938 Mercury Theatre adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel, whose deftly imagined Martian invasion induced widespread panic. But War of the Worlds' title functions metaphorically as well, with Welles caught in the crossfire between opposing forces of artistic integrity and commercial compromise, problematic freedom and comfortable enslavement. Like most of us, Welles worked both sides on occasion, but to his credit (and dismay and frustration) he mostly chose to fight stubbornly for independence. The gods of Hollywood resented Welles for such hubris and exiled him, but not until he had made a film both utterly free of their restrictions and enriched by their abundant resources: Citizen Kane. Having produced at age 25 the film that most still regard as cinema's finest, Welles had nowhere to go but down, but he didn't suicidally hurl himself from the top, as many allege -- he was pushed. And, more important still, the movies he made after the fall suffer only by comparison with Kane: However compromised by budgetary restrictions or producer butchery, such films as The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth, Othello, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight achieve legitimate greatness.
War of the Worlds can't possibly cover the enormous sweep of Welles' multifaceted career and full-to-bursting life, and it wisely doesn't try. Instead, playwright Naomi Iizuka provides a fantasia that employs fictional composites rather than actual historical figures; restages and shrewdly analyzes scenes from Kane, Ambersons, Shanghai and The Stranger; and uses Welles as both character and commentator. SITI artistic director Anne Bogart's ceaselessly inventive staging proves equal to Iizuka's challenging script. Scenic designer Neil Patel provides a spare but flexible set that evokes a soundstage and places scrims and props on casters that Bogart deploys with choreographic dexterity. She makes especially fine use of a large metal rectangle that serves as a physical space for the actors to clamber on and, more tellingly, as a simulacrum for the silver screen. Bogart places most of her impressive filmic re-creations within this frame, and with lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin she creates an impressive range of other illusive (and allusive) moments, including a lovely shadow play. Because of the play's abstract nature, the actors in SITI's extraordinary rep company don't create fully fleshed-out characters -- they're instead called on to assume a dizzying succession of roles -- but their quicksilver transformations and limber versatility astonish, with Tom Nelis, Ellen Lauren and Barney O'Hanlon making particularly strong impressions and Stephen Webber giving an appropriately larger-than-life performance as Welles.
For those unfamiliar with Welles' biography, War of the Worlds' postmodern take on the director, especially given the deliriously breathless pacing, fragmented time scheme and quick "cutting," can create some puzzlement -- for example, some might assume that actress Leni Zadrov and best friend Stephen Webber are real and not imagined. (It's an indication of the SITI Company's subtlety that the fictive Webber shares the same name as the actor who plays Welles, providing a sly comment on the confusion of person and persona and perhaps implying that Orson ultimately kept his own counsel.) But, as the play itself notes, the truth is more important than -- and considerably different from -- the facts. War of the Worlds aims to capture and convey Welles' vital essence, and it succeeds beautifully.