The Pasadena Playhouse's production of Orson's Shadow is a provocative, behind-the-scenes look at stage actors, in this case famous ones. Egos explode in this well-acted celebration of theatrical fireworks and wit with dead-on comedic timing.
Those who love movies might remember Orson Welles as a man whose early promise was killed by ego and studio politics. He had taken on William Randolph Hearst in his 1941 movie, Citizen Kane. Hearst's media empire boycotted the film, which went on to be nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Welles), and Best Director (Welles), and won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles).
Yet Orson Welles as an icon has influenced popular culture, despite the desperation of his later years when he was often scrambling for financial support for his projects.
Based on true events, Austin Pendleton's play looks at a collision of narcissistic men and the death of a marriage in London 1960. A desperate Welles (Bruce McGill), trying to raise money for his next project, agrees to direct an egotistical Laurence Olivier (Charles Shaughnessy), who wants to be relevant to a younger generation, and Olivier's young lover and future wife, Joan Plowright (Libby West). Olivier is still married to Vivien Leigh (Sharon Lawrence). Olivier and Plowright are founding the British National Theatre, for which they will perform a new play, Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros. Critic Kenneth Tynan (Scott Lowell), who wishes to leave something more than just words as part of his legacy to the theater world, is the one who suggests this meeting of creative stage artists. Tynan begins as our narrator, but Pendleton ends with Plowright, the only person still alive of the four, giving an epilogue.
Perhaps this is why Orson's Shadow is the kindest to Plowright, and kind, to a certain extent, to Olivier.
Olivier and Leigh had become lovers while playing lovers in the 1937 movie Fire Over England, when both were still married. Leigh had wed Herbert Leigh Holman, a barrister, in 1932, and given birth to a daughter the next year. Olivier had married actress Jill Esmond in 1930 after meeting her on a film, at a time when she was more famous than he. Esmond and Olivier had just had a son in 1936. But in 1940 Olivier and Leigh divorced their respective spouses and quickly married. Olivier seemed to want them to become a great theatrical couple, "the Oliviers," with himself often directing as well as starring opposite Leigh--something he had not tried with Esmond.
Leigh had already attained film star success from her 1939 appearance as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, for which she had won a Best Actress Oscar. Olivier had starred in the 1939 Wuthering Heights, but would have to wait until 1948 to win his own Oscar as Best Actor for Hamlet. (He also won for Best Director.) The previous year, he had been given a special Oscar for his Henry V.