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Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles

Christian McKay gives an exquisite performance in Mark Jenkins' masterfully written solo play about the great actor and filmmaker.

By New York City
Christian McKay in
Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles
(© Eric Richmond)
Christian McKay in
Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles
(© Eric Richmond)
He looks like Orson Welles. He sounds like Orson Welles. But even more impressively, Christian McKay, who plays cinema's greatest tragic figure in the remarkable solo show Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles at 59E59 Theaters, gives us the great man's soul. Within mere moments of this 70-minute theatrical monologue you will feel as if it is Welles, himself, who is telling us his life's story. And what a story it is, especially as told in this masterfully written play by Mark Jenkins.

If you have only a passing knowledge of Welles you might know that he was responsible for the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938 that caused a panic across the Eastern United States when thousands of people were convinced that Martians had landed in New Jersey. Even more likely, you know him as the boy genius who co-wrote, directed, and starred in Citizen Kane, a 1941 movie that many consider the greatest film ever made. Beyond that, perhaps only film and theater buffs will know many of the details of his life and work.

Welles was a brilliant child, a prodigy in almost every field of endeavor that he touched. Looking back, Welles concedes that his childhood spoiled him into thinking that he was born for success. And success came when he was only 16, as he arrived at the Gate Theater in Dublin, proclaiming himself a famous actor from The United States. Suitably impressed with his blarney, he was given a starring role and made good!

Within a few years, he took New York by storm, first by directing an all-Black Macbeth in Harlem, then by getting headlines (and making theater history) when, on the opening night of the controversial Marc Blitzstein musical The Cradle Will Rock, the theater was padlocked by the police and Welles led a parade of actors and audience members 21 blocks to another theater where the show went on. Not long after, Welles formed his famous Mercury Theater with John Houseman and populated the company with young actors like Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorehead, and Everett Sloane who would have major careers of their own.

With his very first film, Citizen Kane, he would both reach cinematic immortality and sow the seeds of his tragic downfall. According to the play, Welles was ultimately destroyed by the vengeful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, upon whom Citizen Kane was based. Although Hearst couldn't stop Kane from coming out in movie theaters across the U.S., he could (and did) stop Welles from having the career he deserved in Hollywood. As Welles says in the play, "Never pick a fight with someone more ruthless than yourself."

For the rest of his life, Welles never stopped trying to create movie magic, even if he had to lower himself to hawking frozen peas for Birdseye to raise the money to shoot his low-budget but often fascinating films. He never achieved the brilliance of Kane again, but he nonetheless left a stunning legacy that includes masterpieces like The Lady From Shanghai, Touch of Evil, and Chimes at Midnight. But his great heartbreak was spending more than 20 years trying to make Don Quixote, shooting in bits and pieces whenever he could scrape together some money, his actors dying along with his movie

The story of Welles' life is a sprawling epic, yet this modestly produced show, deftly directed by Josh Richards, somehow manages to tell the essence of the tale with remarkable economy. The story unfolds with uncanny precision, segueing from episode to episode with seamless dexterity; and it's all held together by the presence and perfection of McKay's dead-on performance.


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