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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Orson's Shadow

Do you have the guts to disappear? — Orson Welles, directing Laurence Olivier in Rhinoceros.
If an infinite number of People Magazine writers sat down at an infinite number of typewriters, might they eventually produce the script for Orson's Shadow? You see Orson's Shadow is more like a People piece about five famous celebrities than it is a play. Nevertheless, it's hilarious and infinitely entertaining.

The play, written by Austin Pendleton from an idea by Judith Auberjonois, is based on an actual event: the teaming up of Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier in 1960 to produce Eugene Ionesco's absurdist masterpiece Rhinoceros. And a more unlikely pair to produce that play can hardly be imagined!

Rhinoceros came at a critical time for both men. Welles, 20 years past his Citizen Kane prime, is playing to empty houses at a theater in Dublin. Olivier, coming into dinosaur status among London's new crop of angry young playwrights, is anxious to demonstrate that he can do other things besides chew up the scenery in Shakespearean dramas. ("He thinks modern is anything this side of the 14th century," Welles notes ruefully.) Bringing them together is renowned theater critic and writer Kenneth Tynan, a friend of Welles' and a petitioner to join Olivier's new Royal National Theatre as literary advisor.

So let the games begin—to the sound of dueling egos! Welles, who actually hates Rhinoceros has agreed to direct it. Olivier, who is playing the lead, the spineless everyman, (or as Welles defines him, "a helpless, pathetic idiot") is playing it like Henry V. The young Joan Plowright, who is to become Olivier's third wife, is trying to remain calm while taking conflicting directions from both men.

This production, the first of the Pasadena Playhouse's 2008 season, is directed by Damaso Rodriguez, the Playhouse's new Associate Artistic Director. It stars Bruce McGill as Welles, Charles Shaugnessy as Olivier, Scott Lowell as a stammeringly worshipful Kenneth Tynan, a wispy Sharon Lawrence as Vivien Leigh, Libby West as Joan Plowright, and Nick Cernoch as Welles' right-hand man, Sean. All of them are grandiloquent when called for, with Welles being the more reasonable of the players and Olivier being both narcissistic and pompous most of the time. "I'm a giant in chains!" he proclaims. He's brought to his knees, however, by the mental gyrations of his wife, Leigh, who is a wildly manic-depressive personality with, as he notes, "a lust for oblivion." However, Lawrence plays her as a soft-voiced "lady" and is so subdued in her gentility that much of the time you can't hear her beyond the first row. She does have a spectacular meltdown in the second act and earns a round of applause at her exit; as does McGill when he finally has enough of placating Olivier and reads him the riot act about his behavior. It's a stirring treatise on the theater and the doubts and insecurities that plague its denizens.

Tynan, continually stammering in Olivier's intimidating presence, also serves as Narrator, often breaking the fourth wall to comment to the audience. (As when he throws out a brief apology for Olivier's bombastic first entrance). While Lowell is a fine, chain-smoking Tynan (he died of emphysema at the age of 53), the character, as written, is a mere shadow of the real Tynan, who was vitriolic in the extreme, aggressively sexual, and flamboyantly attired in real life.

Though the play's dialogue is consistently funny, it poops out at the end when the playwright, apparently unable to find a plausible ending, has Plowright , as "the only one of us still alive", recites what happened to each of the principals. Sort of like one of those reality crime dramas on TV that explains in the crawl what sentence was imposed on each of the villains.

Orson's Shadow premiered at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 2000. Since then it has been mounted in San Diego, off-Broadway, and in regional theaters around the country. In this Pasadena production Gary Wissman has produced two impressive back-stage settings, and Dan Jenkins' lighting design adds additional drama to the goings-on.

For a review of Orson's Shadow when it played off-Broadway go here.

Orson's Shadow
By Austin Pendleton, conceived by Judith Auberjonois
Directed by Damaso Rodriguez
Cast: Scott Lowell (Kenneth Tynan), Nick Cernoch (Sean), Bruce McGill (Orson Welles), Charles Shaughnessy (Laurence Olivier), Libby West (Joan Plowright), and Sharon Lawrence (Vivien Leigh)
Set Design Gary Wissman
Costume Design: Mary Vogt
Lighting Design: Dan Jenkins
Sound Design: Cricket Myers
Running Time: Not listed; one 15-minute intermission
Pasadena Playhouse, 139 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena (626) 356-PLAY,
From 01/11/08 to 02/17/08; opening 01/18/08
Tickets: $25-65
Reviewed by Cynthia Citron on Jan. 18, 2008

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