Home / Theater Review (LA): Orson’s Shadow

Theater Review (LA): Orson’s Shadow

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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.

Leigh would later win another Oscar in 1951 for playing Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. She had already played the role on stage under Olivier's direction in London, in a production where Olivier had interpreted the play differently than the film director Elia Kazan. Tynan had criticized Leigh's stage performances, including her Blanche, suggesting that Olivier was compromising his own talent for hers.

Leigh was a mercurial actress, increasingly plagued by her bipolar disorder, and Pendleton attributes the breakup of the Oliviers' marriage chiefly to this. There's little mention of the fact that Plowright was married when she met Olivier in 1957, during rehearsals of The Entertainer, a play John Osborne had written for Olivier. Plowright, sixteen years younger than Leigh, did not divorce her husband until 1961, the same year she married Olivier to become his third wife.

According to IMDB, Plowright herself has even suggested that Olivier was somewhat difficult: "If a man is touched by genius, he is not an ordinary person. He doesn't lead an ordinary life. He has extremes of behaviour which you understand and you just find a way not to be swept overboard by his demons."

Although Plowright was listed as the co-respondent in Leigh's divorce from Olivier, IMDB also quotes her as saying, "I have always resented the comments that it was I who was the homewrecker of Larry's marriage to Vivien Leigh. Danny Kaye was attached to Larry far earlier than I." Either way, both of the Oliviers were having affairs.

Pendleton sidesteps and streamlines all of this hubris. His Olivier is a charming, egotistical man, somewhat jealous of Welles' early success, constantly reliving his theatrical and cinematic successes with Leigh (e.g. That Hamilton Woman,), still hurting from Tynan's harsh comments about Leigh's stage performances under his direction and about Olivier's attempts to control and mold the much younger (and less formal than Leigh) Plowright. As Olivier, Shaughnessy doesn't whine or wheedle; he just makes helpful observations, hiding his own insecurities as he simply seeks better understanding while undermining Welles' direction.

McGill's Welles is full of frustrated bluster. He can't finesse his way around Olivier's masterfully polite criticism and obsessive attention to detail. Yet he never becomes downright nasty. After all, Olivier and Welles had been friends. Welles also has a tender spot for the troubled Leigh.

Lawrence's Leigh flutters in and out of control of her mania; lightning-quick changes flash across her face as she struggles to maintain control of her emotions, particularly in a situation where most women would find it impossible–when facing her husband's much younger mistress. This Leigh sparkles with tragic fragility and draws our attention from the much more down-to-earth West as Plowright.

Under the direction of Damaso Rodriguez, Welles, Olivier, and Leigh are larger than life–fitting for the venue. Lowell's Tynan is a man with a vision that becomes a nightmare. The snappy pacing and witty exchanges, without a razor-sharp edge of hate or bitterness, prevent this production from being a poignant plunge into darkness. The real cypher is West's Plowright. The audience can't be sure why she loves Olivier, a man still very attached to his second wife.

Orson's Shadow debuted at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in early 2000, and was staged at the San Diego Old Globe Theatre later that same year. In 2005, there was an off-Broadway production at the Barrow Street Theatre. In 2001, I saw this play produced at the much smaller Black Dahlia Theatre. From what I recall, compared to this Pasadena Playhouse production with its wonderfully solid backstage views by set designer Gary Wissmann, that production was much darker in both tone and general staging. The intimacy of a small venue allows for more subtle character nuances, and the set design was more minimalistic. Rodriguez's ensemble, on the other hand, plays it mostly in the light, although, almost predictably, our first view of Welles is of his shadow. This less tragic interpretation is a bright and intelligent piece of entertainment.

In restrospect, perhaps there was a reason for Olivier to doubt himself. Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche DuBois live on in popular culture. Welles' shadow looms larger still. Even if you haven't seen Citizen Kane or his Chimes at Midnight or Touch of Evil, he voiced the original trailers for 1977's Star Wars and 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The character of the intelligent lab mouse, The Brain, in Pinky and the Brain is loosely based on him. He was, until his death, the voice of Robin Masters on the Magnum: P.I. television series. A genus of spiders was named after him.

This production will entertain those who know about Welles, Leigh, and Olivier, and even, to a lesser degree, Tynan and Plowright. For those who don't, it will still be an enjoyable romp backstage, with egos clashing and a marriage imploding, and perhaps piqueing one's interest in the long legacy of all the characters involved. Orson's Shadow continues until February 17 at the Pasadena Playhouse.

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