Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles review archive review
Michael Criscuolo ·

Mark Jenkins’s lovely new solo play, Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles, captures the grand, operatic soul of its title character splendidly. “The devil is a charmer,” Welles says about one of his most famous roles, Harry Lime in The Third Man, but those words are equally applicable to him. While not quite a devil, Welles was certainly a scoundrel. From his rise as a budding tyro to his slow Hollywood downfall, all of his legendary exploits are packed into Rosebud‘s lean 90 minutes. It’s quite a lot for an audience to digest in such a short amount of time, but Christian McKay’s titanic performance as Welles makes it all go down smooth. McKay doesn’t just portray this gargantuan figure of theatre and film: he is Welles, in appearance, demeanor, and voice. It’s as if Welles himself had risen from the grave to have one final say about his own life.

Rosebud follows a mostly chronological trajectory starting with Welles’s beginnings as a precocious and spoiled Midwestern child. He describes himself as “insufferably confident,” and when he’s asked if he’s a charlatan, he replies, “Well sir, I’m still working on it.” Next stop, New York, where Welles sets the theatre world on fire with his productions of the voodoo Macbeth, Marc Blitzstein’s pro-labor musical The Cradle Will Rock, and Julius Caesar re-imagined as a Nazi allegory. But, it’s his notorious radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds—which, at the time, was mistaken for an actual alien invasion—that first makes Welles a household name. Rosebud thrillingly recreates part of that broadcast, with McKay playing all parties involved, so the audience can see and hear what some of the mania was about. (Welles teases that War of the Worlds revealed that New York was full of “more hyperactive neurotics than we bargained for.”)

Eventually, of course, Welles’s film career takes center stage. And what a career it was! Or, rather, a careen. As a first-time film director, Welles is given an unprecedented studio contract that grants him total creative control. He uses his newfound power to make the legendary Citizen Kane, a thinly veiled attack on the biggest publishing magnate of the time, William Randolph Hearst. Big mistake. The ensuing publicity blackout for Kane in all of Hearst’s media outlets plants the seeds for the lifelong downward spiral of Welles’s career. (Jenkins even includes a chance meeting between the two men on an elevator, in which Hearst makes a chillingly prescient statement about Welles.)

With as much information as Jenkins crams in, viewers may feel a little out of the loop watching Rosebud. The play presumes that the audience knows more about Welles’s life than may actually be the case, which makes certain leaps in his chronology feel a little random. But, for anyone wanting to learn more about this charismatic enigma, Rosebud will definitely whet your appetite.

As for McKay, he is impressive, both in his physical realization of Welles, and in his astonishing ability to convey the man’s devilish charm: it’s easy to see, from McKay’s performance, why Rita Hayworth fell head over heels in love with Welles. Later, when McKay morphs into the older, heavier Welles, he pulls off a deft onstage transformation that makes it abundantly clear why the title character identified so deeply with one of Shakespeare’s most enduring creations, Falstaff.

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