Who Done Him?

Orson Welles' career arc gets a suitably incomparable stage treatment.

Oct 11, 2006 at 4:00 am

What do acrobatic briefcases, Heart of Darkness and a clitoris named "Rosebud" have in common? If you answered "Orson Welles," then you're primed for the world premiere of The Probe: an Inquiry into the Meteoric Rise and Spectacular Fall of Orson Welles in Hollywood. True to its enigmatic subject matter, the production is as much collage as story, an intriguing blend of fact and fiction drawn from the works of Welles and books written about him.

Welles produced, wrote, directed and starred in Citizen Kane. In similar fashion, Chuck Harper created, directed and acted in The Probe. Sharing the stage with six other talented actors, Harper and his script interrogate incidents in Welles' life. And "interrogates" is definitely the word: The Probe presents itself as an investigation leading up to a murder trial. The question before the jury: Who killed Orson Welles' Hollywood career?

As a variety of suspects are put forth — ordinary people, the press, the studio boss, the millionaire publisher, the best friend, Orson himself... — Harper's nimble ensemble presents a series of delightful movement pieces. Manipulating briefcases through a variety of dance styles, Harper, Kathi Bentley, Christopher Mannelli, Terry Meddows, Donna N. Parrone and Julie Venegoni consistently astonish with their clean shifts in style and athletic abilities. It's often hard to tell where the work of choreographer Mikey Thomas and fight choreographer Whitney Elmore begin and end — the dance blends into scene, the scenes blend into combat, and the ensemble performs it all with energy and skill.

Anchoring the production is Carrie Hegdahl as Welles. Harper wisely chose to not embody Orson in any realistic physical sense — instead Hegdahl captures his quixotic nature and need for control. She is delightful in a scene with two Hollywood reporters (Mannelli and Meddows), seducing each with a magical martini. Her authentic sense of outrage and grief during the "trial," particularly when she's betrayed by her best friend (and lover?) John Houseman, is compelling. From the strong supporting ensemble, Venegoni stands out as Marion Davis (the mistress of William Randolph Hearst), both in a kooky interview and in a steamy scene of courtroom cunnilingus.

If you're not a film buff or a student of Welles' work, it's occasionally hard to penetrate the dense performance text. Undoubtedly the play's format, some of the dialogue and the black-and-white images projected throughout the performance are from Welles' movies, but without familiarity with those films, their significance is lost. Although generally accessible through its use of universal themes like power, love and betrayal, the production contains some scenes (particularly the dialogue between Welles and Houseman) that seem to be an inside joke. If you don't get the references, you're left (perhaps intentionally) confused. On the one hand, it's refreshing for a theatrical production to come with a lengthy bibliography and to challenge the audience both artistically and intellectually. But there comes a point at which the mystery of a script can repel an audience instead of intriguing it, and this production teeters dangerously on that very tip.

On the other hand, if you're familiar with Welles' work and career, this production is a gold mine of nodding smiles and "aha!" moments. The piece is at its strongest in the finale, as Hegdahl's Welles launches into monologues from Heart of Darkness and Macbeth while the ensemble swirls around her to the techno beat of the Propeller Heads' "Bang On." The energy of the troupe and the juxtaposition of image, movement and text are stunning.

The Probe is jointly produced by HotCity Theatre's Greenhouse and the newly formed dance/theater group Theatre de la Belle Bete. Both companies are dedicated to original and experimental works. If this provocative and highly polished performance is any indication of future work, St. Louis audiences have much to look forward to.