note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Larry Stark
by Jason Sherman
Directed by Spiro Veloudos
Original Music by Don Horsburgh
Scenic Design by Brynna Bloomfield
Lighting design by Russ Swift
Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley
Sound Design by Marc Plevinsky
Production Stage Manager Jason Rossman
Orson Welles........Geoffrey P. Burns
Marc Blitzstein......Christopher Chew
John Houseman............Robert Saoud
Jean Rosenthal.....Jennifer Valentine
Howard Da Silva.........Neil A. Casey
Olive Stanton..........Julie Jirousek
Eva Blitzstein.........Julie Jirousek
Virginia Welles....Jennifer Valentine
Sometimes, it feels as though someone does a play just for me. I read "Arena" --- Hallie Flanagan's book about heading The Federal Theatre --- over fifty years ago, and when I was five and radio drama was live "The Shadow" created eerily terrifying chills I still shudder to remember --- mostly I think because the voice of Lamont Cranston was that of the man who, from "Kane" to "Othello" to "Chimes at Midnight" to "Touch of Evil" made movies that, in my mind, rival theater. In Jason Sherman's "It's All True" Orson Welles and John Houseman and The Federal Theatre are all young, all testing the limits of possibility, all egomaniacal entities trying to put Marc Blitzstein's musical diatribe "The Cradle Will Rock" on the Maxine Elliot Theatre's stage. And ever since I played The Stage Manager in the South River High School production of Thornton Wilder's "The Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden" I have loved plays set in the backstage universe. So take what I have to say about the Lyric Stage of Boston's current production with a whole pinch of salt. (I loved it!)
It's a dizzying play, with an opening scene that is really a "flash-forward" and both women in the cast playing two really big roles so well they look like completely new actresses when they come back in new costumes. Marc Blitzstein's dead wife appears (in what have to be "flash-backs"). The play sets Director Spiro Veloudos near-impossible demands, often demanding what only film can do: In one scene, Welles does a monologue from Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus" that is interrupted again and again with tight pin-spots on his face as he blurts "Fake!" critcizing his own playing as he's doing it! In another an actress playing one role has lines from her other one, with no time to dash offstage for a costume-change, as though this were a radio-play where you can do Anything and get away with it. The avalanche of fact and background almost demands that one read the program's page and a half of tiny type written by Shayna Ross because ya can't tell the players without a score-card. And you may not have loved theater as much and as long as I have and would prefer a simpler night of entertainment. But, warts and all, it works.
Geoffrey P. Burns is the vesuvial Welles here, already disappointing a first wife, already worried that other people seem to be directing "my" play, already demanding stage-effects that stretch the stage to its utmost ("And at that point the stage will begin to rock. Hell yes, we can do it! We'll make the whole Theatre rock before we're done!"), already eating two or three dinners in a row, already telling the most eloquently moving lies anyone had ever believed.
Robert Saoud is his always upstaged co-producer John Houseman, the calmly businesslike voice on the phone dealing with crises in theatre, in politics, in money and in egotistical tantrums. Here he's inches away from joining Welles in The Mercury Theatre (who would use tanks and Mussolini's blackshirts, torn from the day's headlines, in their production of "Julius Caesar"), figuring ways around padlocked theatres, Equity demands, Musicians' Union demands, theatre owners' demands, and cowardice from the New Deal crew in Washington.
Christopher Chew is Marc Blitzstein, riding uneasy herd on his own conflicted demons. His "play with music" ("I never thought of it as an opera") told the workers' side of a steel strike when America was seeing steel strikes in several cities. He thought of this as a memorial to the wife he watched die painfully of cancer, and was incredulous when a Democratic administration demanded cuts before allowing the production to proceed. Watching everyone fight over his play's right to exist he felt he had to fight faceless burocrats and creative friends to maintain his artistic integrity.
Jennifer Valentine is the show's no-nonsense stage manager Jean Rosenthal, waiting for marching-orders but incapable of the impossible, taking calls on two different phones for Welles or Houseman from union heads, theatre owners, and Harry Hopkins himself.
Julie Jirousek is Olive Stanton, a gawky post-ingenue miscast as a bitter prostitute whose song opens the play though she hasn't a clue as to what it's about. ("I got kids at home, and I need that $27.50 a week The Federal Theatre pays. No way am I gonna get them mad and lose my job!")
Neil Casey is Howard Da Silva, starring as a striker, who questions the director, but obeys Welles' demand that he break off a backstage affair if it will mean a better performance.
Julie Jirousek is Eva, Blitzstein's German wife, as disillusioned a socialist as Bertoldt Brecht, as whiskey-voiced as Lotte Lenya, and calling for sex by her pet name ("Moonlight") between shrieks of cancerous pain.
Jennifer Valentine is Virginia Welles, Orson's rich, bored wife convinced that if hubby's mistress is his 24-hour rehearsals, she might as well take love where she can get it.
The play starts and ends on 16 June, 1937, with the creative crew searching desperately for another theatre --- on opening night! --- where, if they must, the entire cast with the author at a single piano will sit among the audience and "spontaneously rehearse" their lines and songs in what might have been the most defiantly beautiful moments American theater has ever had.
I loved this play. But I am just a theatre-mad, seventy-year-old Democrat who wishes The National Endowment for The Arts could some day find one tenth the guts these theater people did back when I was four.
Go see the show yourself, and make up your own mind.