The SITI Company Dissects Orson Welles Through the Framework of Citizen Kane
The War of the Worlds has nothing to do with Orson Welles' radio broadcast of the H. G. Wells classic; it's more a biography of the legendary artist, except that it isn't really a biography in the true sense, since so much of it is conjecture and speculation - in fact, it's really structured like Welles' film Citizen Kane, except that it's onstage, not on film, and it actually covers most of Welles' films, not just his first and most famous.
Are you still there? Those of you at all familiar with Anne Bogart's SITI Company should have no trouble following the thought process at work here. As with most projects by this highly inventive troupe (Cabin Pressure, BOB, Culture of Desire), War of the Worlds started as a question that occurred to Bogart, the company's artistic director: When did news become entertainment? She concluded that the answer was Welles' 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. That same thought process took her to the subject Welles himself, who by the end of his life was known more as a portly spokesman for Paul Masson wines than as a director of at least one of the greatest films ever made. Who was this person? Since Welles loved magic and was something of a stretcher of the truth all his life, the challenge to the SITI Company was to create a theatrical portrait of this elusive man that occasionally played as fast and loose with the facts as his thinly veiled portrait of William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane.
The company used that seminal film as the structure for War of the Worlds, as a journalist attempts to uncover "the secret" behind Welles' last word: Thorne. Thorne was the name of the room in which he spent time as a youth at the Art Institute of Chicago, according to this production, written by Naomi Iizuka; whether it was actually Welles' last word is as dubious as his use of "Rosebud" as Hearst/Kane's (especially since Hearst wasn't even dead at the time). For the SITI design team - set designer Neil Patel, lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin, sound designer Darron L. West, and costume designer James Schuette - it was the Welles oeuvre that served as the starting point for the project.
"It's all about the frame," says the Welles character early on in the production. He's referring, of course, to the rectangular frame of the silver screen, the space that served as a canvas for his work as a film director. For Patel, the idea of the frame became the central element for the spare design of the production. "In the first version of the set, there was a kind of literal Thorne room onstage, but it all got very complicated. In rehearsals it eventually came down to the idea of the frame, how we'd see different images through it," explains Patel. "And then it became about how to create a theatrical metaphor for the cinematic techniques that Welles talks about without imitating them literally, like how you would describe a zoom onstage, or his use of angle, or his famous use of light and shadow.
"So what we came up with was a silver frame with wheels that would track and spin onstage," he continues, "and you'd either see it as an object floating through space, or as an actual frame for a series of symbolic panels. The white screen, of course, is the screen, but it also serves as a mirror, to represent Welles the magician as well as the scene from The Lady from Shanghai. There is a room, which has a window and is very natural looking, which serves as both Welles' mother's room as well as the Thorne room. And then there is a hand, which is also the idea of the magician."
The size and movement of the frame varied throughout both the rehearsal process and the production's several incarnations (War of the Worlds had its world premiere at the Humana Theatre Festival in Louisville, KY, then was presented at the Edinburgh Theatre in Scotland, and BAM's Next Wave Festival in Brooklyn). "One version of the frame traveled all over the place, and we decided to limit it and put it on a track, so that it would always be centered but could spin," says Patel. "And then when we figured out what the movement and the choreography would be, we wanted one person to be able to spin it while having it stay on the center point and also track up and down, so that its movement was very fluid."
In addition to the frame and varying canvasses, the other main fixtures of the set are 5K lights on stands meant to represent film lights, which surround the stage at various moments in the production. "There's an image of Welles in his movie F for Fake, where he's wearing a cape in a forest," says Patel. "And we liked the idea of him being surrounded by a forest of these lights and cables as he walks out in the beginning and introduces himself."