BWW Reviews: Welles and Olivier Battle in Burbage's Superb ORSON'S SHADOW
Burbage Theatre Company is proving to be a gem of a small company. Last season's "The Liar" was one of the funnier, tighter, and most professional shows I saw all of last year, and this Spring's production of "Orson's Shadow" by Austin Pendleton is every bit as good. The show is the 2nd in a shortened, 3-play season BTC is staging at the Artists' Exchange in Cranston, bookended by the recently closed "Doctor Cerberus" and the about to open "The Bald Soprano," by Eugene Ionesco.
Ionesco figures prominently within the plot of "Orson's Shadow" as well. The play concerns the short working relationship between Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier, as the former directed the latter in the English premiere of Ionesco's "Rhinoceros." Both men's careers had seen better days, and both were looking for a rebirth of sorts, relying on each other's talents and star power to kick start their aspirations. There are some other unanswered questions about their relationship as well - Orson's adoration for Olivier's wife, Vivian Leigh, Olivier's assertion that Welles was responsible for starting his career and Welles' accusation that Olivier was responsible for ending his. These complex relationships play out nicely over the production's swift under-two-hour runtime.
The cast was just superb. There was not a weak link to be found in the ensemble, which is unsurprising considering each actor has appeared on professional stages like Warren's 2nd Story Theatre. What was most impressive was the way they handled the obvious fact that the actors were playing characters 20 years older than themselves. Rather than trying to overuse prosthetics, makeup, or costumes, director Jeff Church has opted to apply minimal aging techniques and rely instead on physicality and voice to portray age, and it works very well. Some gruff naysayers might chastise this young troupe for tackling a piece meant for older actors, but I won't be one of them.
Church pulls double duty as director and one of the leads of this production, and his Laurence Olivier is delightful. Vocally, it's a pitch-perfect impersonation of the man, but to say it's an impersonation is undercutting the performance; Church embodies him, showing the audience not the master artist and Shakespearean we all know, but the insecure man no longer confident in his own abilities.
As Welles, Alex Duckworth fairs just as well. His Welles doesn't have the same level of vocal impersonation as Church (or, perhaps he has the misfortune of playing a character with a much more recognizable voice), but he makes up for it with dry wit and stage presence. His Welles controls the room, even when confronted with larger than life personalities, and despite his crutch of constantly eating. The scenes played between the two of them crackle with energy, particularly one scene where Welles desperately tries to direct an increasingly frustrated Olivier through the delivery of a single line of dialogue.
The rest of the cast, though they have less to do, are equally impressive. Nathanael Lee, as Kenneth Tynan, noted theatre critic, is effusive and likeable as the narrator for most of the evening, setting up the audience with a hilarious expository monologue about how much he despises expository monologues. As actress Joan Plowright, Allison Crews provides much the emotional weight and backbone to the piece in a very nuanced way, constantly pushing both Welles and Olivier to work together.
And if Crews brings the nuance, Valerie Westgate brings the pomposity, invigorating the ends of both acts with her self-described manic depressive take on Vivian Leigh. She's a fast-talking, manipulative woman, who at her heart is very much in love. It's heart-breaking and hilarious at the same time. Rounding out the cast is Andrew Iacovelli as Sean, a no-nonsense Irish stage manager who undermines the egos of both of the main characters, to great comedic effect.
The play's subjects are a bit dated, but its themes of artistic integrity, pride, mental instability, and redemption are fairly universal. Even someone who has never seen Citizen Kane or Hamlet will get a strong grasp of who these people were, and in that way, all credit is due to the company of actors and their director. For the second season in a row, Burbage has got a real winner on their hands.
"Orson's Shadow" runs until June 7th at the Artists' Exchange, 50 Rolfe Sq, Cranston. Tickets can be purchased at the door, or reserved by calling the Artists' Exchange at 401.490.9475.