Welles and company cast a giant ‘Shadow'
Theater giants collaborate, clash in LB play
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in London and Dublin, circa 1960, when the fates brought together legendary stage and screen director and actor Orson Welles and screen legends Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.
That premise, dreamed up by Judith Auberjonois, must have spurred actor-playwright Austin Pendleton in penning "Orson's Shadow."
The play, which premiered in Chicago in 2000 and played New York in 2005, at first seems a dramatization of a series of events that put Welles and Olivier, and others in their wake, on a collision course.
Upon closer examination, though, "Shadow" is a character study, a stripping away of public personas that affords us a close-up look at several monumental show-biz figures at critical points in their careers. By doing so, "Orson's Shadow" becomes a meditation of the sacrifices artists make for their art, the insecurities of supposedly steel-plated egos, and the power struggles that unfold behind the scenes of colossal movie and stage projects.
These elements and more are on display at the Studio Theatre in a collaboration between Alive Theatre and Long Beach Playhouse. Ricci Dedola's staging gets Pendleton's points across admirably while evoking the flavor of a show business world that the likes of Welles and Olivier knew was shifting seismically into something beyond their customary control.
Their frustrations, those of giants whose potency was ebbing, are summed up in the moment when Olivier, rehearsing his role in a Welles-directed London world premiere of Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros," cries out "I'm a giant in chains!" – to which a weary Welles replies "I know how you feel."
Pendleton dramatizes, for the sake of effect, the clash of these titans, for when Olivier reminds Welles that "you've never directed anyone like me," Welles agrees, his pleasure in working with the then-acknowledged greatest actor in the English-speaking world well documented.
Granting Pendleton such artistic license is a major reason "Orson's Shadow" is so much fun. Though his greatest successes are long behind him, Welles (Robert Edward) is a behemoth used to crushing lesser beings, while Olivier (Tim Thorn) is facile, always coy regarding his astonishing talents.
In their orbit are three more volatile personas: Joan Plowright (Ashley Allen), a rising star of the British stage who is not only Olivier's "Rhinoceros" co-star but also his new lady love; Olivier's soon to be ex-wife Vivien Leigh (Cassie Vail Yeager), whose career has begun to crumble but who still wields professional and personal power; and Kenneth Tynan (Jonathan Lewis), the acerbic young British theater and film critic whose blunt, forceful reviews have cut many a star down to size.
Edwards' voice may not be as low and rumbling as Welles', but it lends him a commanding, lofty and prodigious presence. Even when the chinks in Welles' armor become visible, as when his gravelly voice rasps with rage and fatigue, he's a figure to be feared.
While Edward, Allen, Yeager and Lewis are impressive, Thorn's owlish portrayal of Olivier is a tour-de-force in its accuracy. Tall and thin, with thick eyeglasses and graying hair, Thorn has the glib, self-congratulatory manner and florid, chipper, mile-a-minute delivery down pat. In every respect, he is the acclaimed actor known here only as "Larry."
Yeager's kittenish (and catty) Leigh is petulant, quizzical, pouty and sultry, traits delivered in a purring, singsong voice. Her lengthy phone call with Olivier, in which each jousts for supremacy in their relationship, is one of the show's high points. Plowright is younger and less mannered than Leigh, and Allen suitably plays her as even-keeled and reasonable, the only adult in the room.
The hallmark of Lewis' portrayal of the stammering, chain-smoking Kenneth Tynan is his refined diction, and Lewis also thankfully tones down the ostentatious look and manner the young Tynan was known for.
The story's only non-celebrity is young stagehand Sean. Joe Howells plays up his unabashed ignorance of the giants around him, his habit of calling them by their first names a social faux pas both hilarious and mortifying to observe.
Pendleton's wonderful text gives us scads of Welles and Olivier's false modesty. To wit, Welles says he directed "Citizen Kane" "from my high chair," while Olivier refers to himself as little more than "a movie star from the 1930s." Their beliefs in their own levels of talent and artistry make such statements all the more audacious, a trait we can admire as part of the package that is every legendary show-business figure.
In fact, as complex as is the play's web of ego, reputations, self-image, friendship and trust, this staging admirably clarifies its interlocking themes for the attentive audience.
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