Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Orson's Shadow"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Larry Stark

"Orson's Shadow"

by Austin Pendleton
Conceived by Judith Aubernojois
Directed by Spiro Adam Zahler

Senic Design by Janie E. Howland
Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg
Costume Design by Molly Trainer
Sound Design by Scott G. NasonMolly Trainer
Properties Design by Matthew CW Page
Production Stage Manager Carola Morrone

Kenneth (Tynan).........Jason Marr
Sean....................Adam Soule
Orson (Welles)...Steven Barkheimer
Larry (Olivier.......Tuck Milligan
Joan (Plowright)....Helen McElwain
Vivien (Leigh)..........Debra Wise

Austin Pendleton has written a brilliant, astonishing play about actors.
Well, about STARS, really, and stars are --- different! In words Pendleton puts into the mouth of the famous critic Kenneth Tynan, "They can do such brilliant work because they're all Insane!" The play is set in the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1960 where Laurence Olivier is rehearsing Ionesco's new absurdist play "Rhinoceros" --- Directed by Orson Welles. Tynan is trying to smooth conflicts, Olivier is playing opposite his future wife Joan Plowright when his current wife Vivien Leigh drops by between electro-shock treatments. The critical-mass of enormous ego is about to explode. But, Jesus-God, can these people talk!

Director Adam Zahler has handled his intense cast, on Janie E. Howland's big, not really empty set, in such a way that they ARE their characters. As Tynan, tall and pipe-slender Jason Marr's stutter disappears talking to friends (or the audience) but emerges when he talks with the artists he admires. His smoking triggers a terrifying cough from the emphyscema that will kill him, and he has a habit of blurting difficult truths when excited.

But then, this is the life-changing moment for everyone on stage, and their tangled pasts spill and splash every which-way at least-expected moments. Beautifully bearded Steven Barkheimer as Welles pins his future on his first Hollywood film in decades ("Touch of Evil") and offers the new English National Theatre a stage version of "Chimes at Midnight" in order to raise the money to film it. But he still insists that Olivier's comments on his work ruined his Hollywood career back in 1948!

As Olivier, Tuck Milligan, in crisp business-suit and glasses, is a walking river of words repressing all the changes in his life. He's on the brink of metamorphosis from actor/director to heading the new National Theatre, about to leave his insane wife ("If I didn't" he said later, "I would have killed her."), and after a triumph in "The Entertainer" he's trying to give up his classic Shakespearean acting style to embrace newer, more proletarian roles. Again and again he searches for something --- Anything! --- physical on which to pin his new characterization in "The Rhinoceros" while murmuring "I don't know what to DO."

Debra Wise plays the needful, spiteful Vivien Leigh as a mercurial reflection of her "Streetcar named Desire" role. On her way to do a play in New York she first phones then drops by to embrace and needle her husband, and to meet his mistress for the first time --- and tries to seduce the stage-manager (Adam Soule) --- before her flight. Olivier loves/hates her (He says she ran off with an actor to make a movie ["Black Narcissus"] and was brought back in a straight-jacket.) but he seems never to summon the courage to rid himself of her.

Often the rest of the cast is ranged about staring aghast at one of them ripping at flesh to reveal old wounds --- many of them self-inflicted. The talk is relentless, often so astonishing as to be comical, and the actors bounce these revelations off the looming legends of self-absorbed theatrical giants. Only Adam Soule playing an aloof stage-manager and Helen McElwain as a palcidly comforting Joan Plowright have no emotional baggage in tow, but inside this ego-explosion that means they are thus little more than articulate furniture.

Author Pendleton applies his long life in the theatre to the problem of two gifted directors involved on the same play, and the awsome pressures of international stardom. His program notes on writing the play, and two pages of quotes from Tynan,s reviews, serve as cherries atop a rich insight into theatrical fame in the last century.

( a k a larry stark )

"Orson's Shadow" (23 February - 18 March)
Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, WATERTOWN MA
1(617) 923-8487

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide