The Magnificent Ambersons
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
First some quick history: in 1942, Orson Welles filmed Booth Tarkington's novel The Magnificent Ambersons as the ambitious follow-up to Citizen Kane. The studio took advantage of Welles's post-shooting absence to re-edit the film, cutting about 45 minutes from it and adding a happy(ish) ending. The trimmed footage was destroyed.
June 6, 2008
The full title of this show reveals its quixotic nature: Gemini CollisionWorks presents The Magnificent Ambersons by Orson Welles: A Reconstruction for the Stage. Theatre auteur Ian W. Hill has utilized a shot-by-shot written transcript of the original version of the film to build Welles's "cut" onstage at the Brick's Film Festival: A Theater Festival. It's the kind of genius's folly that Welles himself would certainly have understood. It's also an extraordinary work of theatre, and not for the reasons you might think.
There is, to be sure, the curiosity value: here is, after all, the first and probably only chance that most of us will ever have to see at least an approximation of the film that Welles always claimed was his finest work. The Magnificent Ambersons tells the story of the scion of a very rich Midwestern American family, George Amberson Minifer, and how he gets, as the screenplay puts it, his "comeuppance." It's Kane-like in its sweeping examination of what power and wealth can do to good hard-working people; I don't know the Tarkington novel but I was surprised by one aspect of the screenplay, anyway, which is that George's tragic flaw is not ultimately what instigates his downfall, which seems to me to be dramaturgically problematic. (A guide to the story's main characters is here and a pretty good synopsis of the story is here.)
It's riveting stuff, no doubt about it (the running time is two hours and change but it does not hang heavy in the least). Hill, who adapted, designed, directed, and narrates the show, ingeniously uses four portable white screens and a minimal number of props and set pieces to tell the story in a style that can only be described as cinematic. The screens and the stark lighting frame the actors into the stage equivalent of close-ups and sometimes create a "split-screen" effect. Judicious use of Bernard Herrmann's original recorded score and Hill's unmatched eye for making stage pictures yield dazzling results in unexpected places: a ball at the Amberson mansion, with perhaps just four or five couples dancing before us, feels as full and rich as the cotillion scenes in Gone with the Wind; a sequence set during a snowstorm, as two generations of Ambersons try out the newfangled automobile invented by upstart neighbor Eugene Morgan, is absolutely stunning. In the middle of the first heat wave of the summer, I felt the biting frost in the air.
But I still haven't gotten to the most remarkable achievement of all. Hill and his company, in crafting a theatre piece meticulously from a film, give audiences what amounts to a master class in the differences between film acting and stage acting. Ambersons is so fundamentally filmic that almost all of its important moments happen not in words but in actions (or, nearly as often, inaction or repose). Because the Brick is such an intimate venue, Hill can allow his actors to perform as they would for a camera rather than for a live audience. Consequently, seeming trivialities, like Fanny Minifer's hand lightly jerking free from the careless grip of her lifelong unrequited love Eugene Morgan, are magnified, becoming significant emotional milestones in the drama. It's a paradox that I didn't expect and that I found fascinating and magnetic.
Hill's chief collaborator, Berit Johnson, deserves serious kudos for her contributions to the work, as do the members of the 19-person ensemble, most of whom are essentially "extras" in scene after scene, invaluably filling out the story and the frames (and seamlessly setting up and dismantling the numerous scenes in well-choreographed transitions). Among the principals, the strongest work is offered by Ivanna Cullinan as Fanny, the maiden aunt originated by Agnes Moorehead, Timothy McCown Reynolds as Eugene, and Walter Brandes as Jack Amberson.
I believe I've remarked at least once on this website that Ian W. Hill's expansive and sometimes chaotic vision of what belongs on stage hearkens back to Welles's visionary ideas, so the union of the two on this project is in a way no surprise. It is precisely the kind of work that a festival like this one should embrace. There's nothing remotely like it on stage anywhere else in NYC and very likely there never will be. Fans of Hill and Welles, and of possibilities both cinematic and theatrical, have something to be very excited about.