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Directed by Richard Linklater
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Me and Orson Welles
It’s a rare film that can capture the unique magic of the theatre. “All About Eve” is one; I’m not sure there’s been another until this brand-new Richard Linklater film “Me and Orson Welles.” The film is set during one week in 1937, when Welles’s troupe of Mercury Players is confronting the imminent opening of their first production, Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” Like many of his later productions, Welles has in fact cut Caesar out of this one, but no matter. What does matter is the intensity, the constant sparks that he’s generated among all his players. The show is set in Mussolini’s Italy – not Rome – and has many unspoken references to fascism.
We see much of this through the eyes of a stage-struck high-school kid named Richard Samuels (played by Zac Efron,) who tries hard but vainly to play the role Welles has assigned him. In the meantime he first finds a girl – a poet – whom he picks up at the 42nd-street library, but he then drops her for the older woman who mans the box office for Welles – Sonja Jones (played with sexy wit and infinitely more sophisticated smarts by Clare Danes). She initiates Richard into sex, but then, like most 17-year-olds in that situation, he falls in love with her. He has a lot to learn.
But the person who holds it all together is Welles himself, played with delicious brio and unmatched confidence by Christian McKay, an almost unknown British actor whom Linklater found and who is perfect in every way as Welles. The fact that he doesn’t look quite like Welles doesn’t matter; this is Welles exactly as we would like to remember him. He commands the stage, he commands his troupe, he has that wonderfully imperious voice that simply cannot be ignored. And then, after many trials and tribulations, we see the last scenes of “Caesar,” and the triumph of great theatre as the audience comes to their feet as they do when they feel the presence of greatness. It happens only in live productions, of course; film, for example, is already set and in the can long before people can see it; only in music, opera, dance and theatre can these moments be savored. This is one of them. “Me and Orson Welles” is now playing in Spokane at the Magic Lantern Theatre.