Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

'Orson's Shadow' is a Gift to the Stage

Those unfamiliar with Hollywood history need not be deterred from seeing Orson's Shadow, now being staged at the Pasadena Playhouse, as despite the play's mostly factual gathering of stage and screen legends backstage at the Royal Court Theatre in London, each of the impressive characters, director Orson Welles, thespian Laurence Olivier, stars Vivien Leigh and Joan Plowright, both of whom shared marriage vows with the former, and storied critic Kenneth Tynan, find plenty of time to run down their list of credits and accomplishments throughout the night.

And leave it to playwright Austin Pendleton to insert such egotistical rants throughout Orson's Shadow, occasionally while breaking the fourth wall, without ever being anything but acutely accurate in his characterizations of actors in general, who often find time to slip in a name drop or credit whenever the situation allows.  Pendleton is a spot-on observer of human characters, and much of this play is built upon such intuitive examinations of theatrical legends.

Often, when an entertainer creates a pinnacle performance in their career, be it a heralded cinematic masterpiece as in "Citizen Kane," or a long run as Hollywood's ultimate leading man, a shadow is placed over their remaining life, leaving little in the way of self satisfaction to be had as they are never able to best their past.  So imagine the sparks when three such stars, in this case Welles, Olivier and Leigh, play out a real life clash of the titans during rehearsals for Ionesco's Rhinoceros in 1960.

Tynan, embodied by Scott Lowell, who spent his time observing and chronicling the British theatre scene as its leading critic, acts here as the central narrator, as he was the broker who brought Welles and Olivier together, not to mention antagonized most everyone with his wickedly sharp tongue, as stuttering as it was, in his writings.  Lowell is a nuanced delight throughout the play, squirming when confronted by his criticized subjects.

With so many larger-than-life figures on stage, and the inevitable egos that follow, there are plenty of laughs to be had as they are each bursting with arrogant overtones and plenty of pent up frustration at their stalled careers.  Yet, beyond such comical moments, Orson's Shadow is filled with poignant glimpses at the insecurities and even disturbed mental states of actors and all those involved with theatre.

Following a failed run on stage in Dublin, Welles is ruminating over his being shunned from Hollywood, and is sick and tired of the recognition that comes from his youthful directing of "Citizen Kane."  Bruce McGill tackles the role with a comfortable take on the demanding director, often appearing as a cantankerous lion pained by a thorn in his paw.  He describes himself as a "sick man maddened by failure," and such words can quickly sum up all those involved in the arts.  Once in command of Olivier, or the man who ruined him in Hollywood as Welles constantly professes, it appears as if he is punishing the actor for having all the successes he ought to have had instead. 

Charles Shaughnessy balances pomposity with trepidation as the great Olivier, finding himself lost in the sea of youthfulness popping up on stage and screen while also loving just such a sprite, in Plowright (Libby West), despite the unavoidable fact that he is still in love with the deeply troubled Leigh.  Agreeing to take on Welles as the director of Rhinoceros, in which Oliver will star opposite his love interest, throughout the course of rehearsals each of the characters finds a level of catharsis after each has his or her battle royal.

Sharon Lawrence is heartbreaking in her deeply tragic realization of the troubled Leigh, although it is uncomfortable at points as Pendleton exploits Leigh's reported bi-polar outbursts front and center in the second act, and inserts her into the play for no other reason than to spark further drama.  Her gorgeous outward appearance only deepens the tragedy of her fragile state of mind, suffering from devastating bouts of mania.  How crushing that her personal life is reflected in the unstable fictional one of Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire," which she immortalized on screen and tackled in the West End under the direction of her husband, Olivier.

Pungent wafts of the countless cigarettes Tynan and Leigh burn through leave a bitter tasting reminder of their impending fates, coughing for a creative release and unable to catch their breath in the claustrophobic state of artistic affairs at hand.

While Orson's Shadow ventures off to extreme dramatics, the essence of Pendleton's work remains constitutionally centered on the art of making art, focusing an often blemish revealing spotlight on the powerful minds and extremely talented personas that go into crafting a play.  In essence, Orson's Shadow is a vivid love letter to all things theatre, and is read by this critic with a longing for such times to always flourish in this growing culturally dry modern day.

Directing this finely assembled group of actors is Dámaso Rodriguez, managing to work his way through Pendleton's excellent play and maintain its honesty.  The shadow-laden backstage set design and darkened stage, highlighted at one point by only a single ghost light, conjuring up the past of Welles and his flamboyant Hollywood history, is from set designer Gary Wissmann and lighting designer Dan Jenkins.

Exiting into the frigid cold air of Pasadena and driving back towards Los Angeles forced a shiver of longing for the magnificent past recollected and captured in Orson's Shadow

Orson's Shadow
runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through February 17th, and tickets, ranging from $25 - $65, can be purchased by calling 626-356-PLAY or by visiting the box office, located at 39 South El Molino Avenue in Pasadena.  For more information, visit www.Pasadenaplayhouse.org.

Photos by Craig Schwartz.  (1) Bruce McGill and Charles Shaughnessy (2) Charles Shaughnessy and Sharon Lawrence (3) Bruce McGill, Libby West and Sharon Lawrence.



Related Stories

From This Author - James Sims