Many know Orson Welles as an actor, others as an auteur director, and still some as the radio legend who “panicked America” with his 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Relatively few, however, know him as an aspiring magician, yet it is this side of Welles which is presented in Orson the Magnificent: The Magic of Orson Welles, the one-man combination theater- and-magic show currently being performed by Lars Klores and hosted by the City of Fairfax Theatre Company at the Old Town Hall in Fairfax.
The atmospherics are phenomenal as one enters the reception room, in which there are nine or ten small round tables with candles at which audience members are seated. The stage sports a wind-up Victrola, vintage stage (movie studio?) lighting equipment, a table with props, and various mirrors with golden trim. Spooky wind sound effects (an allusion to Welles days playing The Shadow?) also suggest the scene of a séance. Mr. Klores enters as Welles (dressed in black with a round brim hat and Welles’ trademark cigar), and – abracadabra! — the magic show begins with impressive card tricks, mind-reading games, and glasses filled with wine which appear magically out of handkerchiefs. Welles, famous in later life for his wine commercials in which he says that he will “drink no wine before its time,” would have been proud.
While most magicians perform their tricks accompanied by distracting banter, Mr. Klores regales us with anecdotes told in the first person by “Welles,” as well as with a history of Houdini and great magicians of the past in a kind of “PowerPoint” delivered through a magic looking-glass. As a magic show, this is good; as a one-man show about Welles, this is excellent. The genius of Orson the Magnificent is that Mr. Klores puts these two very different types of shows together successfully to achieve something more.
Unlike in a traditional play, audience participation is broad, and the show delighted the young for its magic and the adults for their various memories of Orson Welles. It is thus a show which can appeal to diverse generations, a rare thing in our day. Welles was also “Orson the Magniloquent” and had one of the most recognizable voices of twentieth-century America and thus performed narrations for everything from Shogun to a documentary on Nostradamus. Does Mr. Klores’ voice resemble that of Welles? Except for the mid-Atlantic accent and an occasional cadence or dramatic pause, the voice does not match the pitch and delivery of Welles. Mr. Klores also does not attempt to imitate the wide girth Welles acquired in the later years in which he portrays Welles. If Orson the Magnificent were intended to be an exact impersonation of Welles, all this would be a defect, but Mr. Klores makes plain he is trying to capture the spirit of the man, something which might be missed with exact verisimilitude. Orson himself might well have understood, for he always did things in his own way and famously reinterpreted Shakespeare in his incredibly daring productions of Shakespeare in the worlds of voodoo (Macbeth), 1930’s fascism (Julius Caesar), and a Turkish bath (scene from Othello), all of which captured the spirit of Shakespeare on stage and film in new ways by not imitating Shakespeare.
Via Welles as raconteur variously holding wands, cards, and a “magic bag”, we learn much about this genius of the American past — that he did many magic tricks on television, starred in an early 1940’s war rally as the magician “Orson the Magnificent” (hence the title of this production), and liked to associate socially with magicians. More darkly, the real Welles brooded on wasted time and regrets in life and on the impermanence of time itself. Amazingly, such ruminations were connected in the show to a magic trick: Orson the Magnificent, using his magic, was able to pull out a glass of wine from a collection of fabrics. “Welles” drank the glass throughout the show, and by the end, the vessel was empty, representing his perception of descending time, whose shifting sands finally empty from the top of an hourglass.
After the show in a question and answer session, Mr. Klores proved himself a scholar in his chosen subject, with intimate knowledge of Welles’ films and interviews. The actor, who is also a professional magician, explained: “Orson Welles was not the most skilled magician, but it is fair to call him one of the greatest magicians.” This was due to Orson’s personality and charisma in “pulling off” a show by intuiting and responding to an audience, whether on stage, screen, television, or radio. Or in a magic show. Is everything that we learn in the show about Welles’ life true? Looking all of this up on the Internet might spoil the illusion, which – of course — is death to any magic show.
Orson the Magnificent: The Magic of Orson Welles was written and directed by its star Mr. Klores, in consultation with a close friend of Welles. Although it has been performed in many area venues, Mr. Klores commented that the City of Fairfax Theatre Company’s staging in the Old Town Hall was by far the best, and readers are urged to see this entertaining and informative show in its Fairfax incantation, which plays through May 6. Further information on times, tickets, and prices may be found by visiting the website http://www.fairfaxcitytheatre.org/orson-the-magnificent.html.