nytheatre.com review by Kelly McAllister
March 12, 2005
Sometimes, going to the theatre is like spending the night in a haunted house. It’s exciting, it’s scary, and there are ghosts looming everywhere—ghosts who can’t get over the past, over who they once were. At least, that’s how it often seems to me. And it’s certainly how it felt when I saw Austin Pendleton’s stunning play Orson’s Shadow at the Barrow Street Theatre. How could I not? The first scene is mostly lit by a ghost light—the lamp left on the stage after everyone leaves, both to make it safe to enter the theatre in the dark, and to keep ghosts away. (Theatre people are superstitious like that. They believe in the fantastic. They believe in ghosts, they believe in magic, and they believe in curses. If you don’t believe me, try going into a theatre sometime and saying "Macbeth.")
Orson's Shadow covers a short period of time in 1960, when Ken Tynan, the famous theatre critic, convinced Orson Welles to direct Laurence Olivier in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. At this time, Welles was on his way down in the eyes of the world. His seminal film, Citizen Kane, was years behind him. Nothing he had done since had been able to capture the public’s attention in quite the same way.
For his part, Olivier was at a crossroads in his career. He had made his first success with “modern” theatre a year previous starring in John Osborne’s The Entertainer—but was still having trouble adjusting to a theatre whose sensibilities were shifting from the technique-heavy style of which he was the master to the more emotionally focused work popularized by such playwrights as Tennessee Williams. On top of that, Vivien Leigh, his wife, was slowly going insane, and he would soon leave her for his lover, the young Joan Plowright.
There are three scenes in the play. The first deals with Tynan meeting Welles in a theatre in Dublin and trying to convince him to direct the play. The second and third act take place on the stage of the Royal Court Theatre, London. In Act Two, Tynan convinces Olivier to do the show, and in the third act, we see a rehearsal that is both a hilarious examination of brilliant artists at work, and a sad preview of the slow decline awaiting several of the main characters.
The play is full of humor and sorrow, and revels in showing us not only the shortcomings of these legendary artists, but also the shocking brilliance that made them who they were. Listening, here, to Olivier describe how he works on scripts by Ionesco, Shakespeare, and Osborne is fascinating. Seeing Orson Welles describe his take on the Henry IV plays to Ken Tynan is thrilling. And watching the tragic breakdown of Vivian Leigh is astonishing. Director David Cromer keeps the action moving at just the right pitch—I especially enjoyed the way he has Welles speak to Tynan from offstage by use of a “god mic”—a microphone connected to huge speakers. Cromer also has the good sense to let his actors have the time and space to create exciting, authentic portrayals of very complex people.
The design team of Takeshi Kata on sets, Tyler Micoleau on lights, and Theresa Squire on costumes perfectly creates the world of the play, evoking both the period it is set in, and the magic of theatre buildings.
The cast is excellent. As Welles, Jeff Still is perfect—at once a bombastic egomaniac and a hurt little boy. He captures the spirit of a man smart enough to see which way the wind is blowing, but impetuous enough to defy his inevitable fate. As Olivier, John Judd is equally brilliant. Judd’s comic sense is extraordinary, and is only matched by his passion. At one point, in reference to his wife Vivien Leigh, he asks Welles, “What would you do if the person you loved had the plague?” Judd lets us see, in that one moment, how conflicted and sad he is over what’s happening in his life.
As Ken Tynan, Tracy Letts—more famous in New York as the writer of Bug and Killer Joe—is wonderful. What Letts, Judd, and Still do so well is convey intelligence and passion. They make us believe that such giants did indeed exist in the world.
Not to be outdone by the men, Lee Roy Rogers gives a searing portrayal of Vivien Leigh at the end of her days. Leigh, known forever as the woman who played Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, was a very complex woman—full of contradictions. Rogers captures both the glamour, and the tragedy of Leigh perfectly. As Joan Plowright, Susan Bennett gives us the one artist in the story who isn’t quite wrecked by life yet—the one whose star is still in ascendancy. Bennett, as befits the role, is grounded and sure, and the scene where she rehearses Rhinoceros with Olivier is hilarious. Rounding out the cast is Ian Westerfer, who plays Sean, an young Irish stage manager who doesn’t know all that much about the famous people he is working with, and thus provides the audience with someone whom they can relate to in the midst of the proceedings.
This play, about the shadow of the past that haunts us all, is one of the best plays I’ve seen this season, and not to be missed.