Sunday, September 19, 2021

Review: Mercury Man Rises to the Occasion

Who: Dramatic Hat Productions
What: Mercury Man: The Last Performance of Orson Welles
Where: Mills Hardware (95 King Street East)
When: July 18-28, various dates & times (as part of the Hamilton Fringe Festival

Orson Welles’ last cinema role was infamously, as a voice-performer in the 1985 animated Transformers movie. He had previously been doing commercials and smaller roles- anything for a dollar, it seemed. In Mercury Man: The Last Performance of Orson Welles, the show not only attempts to explore why Welles was desperate to remain center stage near the end of his life, but also the motivations that led to some of his greatest performances on his way to stardom.

The production is cleverly staged between the modern day (1985) and flashbacks. Projections provide context and additional information, while Adrian Gorrissen acts as frequent collaborator John Houseman and Joel Pettigrew acts as a younger Orson Welles. While both are strong performers, the real highlight of the performance is the chemistry between Rod McTaggart (an older Orson Welles) and Cora Matheson (Welles’ self-proclaimed “biggest fan,” Georgie). Their performances, paired with Pettigrew’s intelligent script add layers of nuance to the flashbacks.

Another highlight is the script itself. The stunningly well-researched and intricate script manages to balance exploring the difficulty of making art while simultaneously imaging the circumstances behind the creation of Welles’ most well-known productions- War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane. This is no easy feat, but the writing and ensemble cast make it look easy. The show’s final moment is one of its most powerful- all characters except for an older Orson Welles fade into the blackness, leaving just the older Orson Welles positioned centre stage in a powerful silhouette.

It is clear from an audience perspective that this show would have been difficult to stage. Mercury Man involves a number of props and scenes, and as Mills Hardware doesn’t have much of a backstage space, this is all fit onto the stage. It is somewhat awkward and crowded at times and while the production itself can’t be blamed for these circumstances, it was, at times, somewhat distracting. However, the props and items that are on stage are all necessary, and are well thought out. In particular, a “working” cigar that the younger Welles has throughout the show that the older character does not. This nuance and attention to detail (and many other small, similar moments) do an excellent job of enhancing the show. It would be impossible to eliminate items without detracting from the performance.

The makeup of the flashback characters was also confusing- the production seemed to be attempting to portray the flashback scenes in a monochromatic setting; however, in the show I attended, this wasn’t well executed. The younger Orson Welles had white makeup on his face, but his frequent scene partner John Houseman had it in his hair and on his hands- but not on his face. This may have been done purposefully or as an artistic choice, but I completely missed what it was trying to accomplish.

A less minor flaw was the confusing nature of the “super fan” character and the older Orson Welles. While spectacularly acted, the “super fan” was, at different points in this character also treated as a mentor, mentee and artistic confidante. This treatment of the Georgie character by the older Orson Welles seemed conflicted with the character of the younger Welles that is portrayed throughout the show. Perhaps there was a scene missing or a disconnect between character motivations, but this felt unresolved.

Ultimately, Mercury Man is a fun and thought-provoking show that challenges what the cost of creating great art truly is. This show attempts to humanize the infamous actor and director, and for those who are “super fans” of Welles, this may be the best way to remember him.

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