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01 February 2008

THEATER REVIEW: Egos Collide in "Orson's Shadow"

The Pasadena Playhouse's production of "Orson's Shadow," is a provocative behind the scenes look at stage actors, in this case famous actors. Egos explode, but this production is a well-acted celebration of theatrical fireworks and wit with dead-on comedic timing.

For those who love movies, you might remember Orson Welles as a man whose early promise was killed by ego and studio politics. He had taken on Randolph Hearst in his 1941 movie, "Citizen Kane." Hearst's media empire boycotted the film that 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 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 the 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 this 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 artists of the stage. 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 even, to a certain extent to Olivier.

In 1960, Olivier was still married to Vivien Leigh. They had become lovers while playing lovers in the 1937 movie "Fire Over England." Both were still married. Leigh was married to Herbert Leigh Holman, a barrister, in 1932 and had given birth to a daughter the next year. Olivier to actress Jill Esmond in 1930 whom he met on a film when she was more famous. Esmond and Olivier had just had a son in 1936. When Olivier and Leigh both divorced their respective spouses in 1940, they quickly married. Olivier seemed to want them to become a great theatrical couple, the Oliviers, often directing as well as starring opposite of 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 won a Best Actress Oscar. Olivier had starred in the 1939 "Wuthering Heights." Olivier would have to wait until 1948 to win an 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."

She would later win another Oscar in 1951 playing Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire." She had already played that role on stage under Olivier's direction in London, one that Olivier had interpreted 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 and was increasingly plagued by her bipolar disorder and Pendleton chiefly attributes this to the break up of the Oliviers marriage. There's little mention that Plowright was married when she met Olivier in 1957, during rehearsals of a play that John Osborne had written for Olivier, "The Entertainer." Plowright, who was 16 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.com, 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 she was listed as the co-respondent in Leigh's divorce from Olivier, IMDB.com 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 Olivier attempts to control and mold the much younger (and less formal than Leigh) Plowright. Shaughnessy doesn't whine or weedle; 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 down right nasty. After all, Olivier and Welles had been friends. Welles has a tender spot for the troubled Leigh.

Lawrence's Leigh flutters in and out of control of her mania, we see lightening quick changes flash across her face as she struggles to maintain control of her emotions, particularly at a time that most women would find impossible--when facing your husband's much younger mistress. Lawrence's 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 the Chicago 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 wonderfully solid backstage views by set designer Gary Wissmann, that production was much darker in both tone and general staging. In a small venue such intimacy allows for more subtle character nuances and the set design more minimalistic. Rodriguez's ensemble plays this mostly in the light although almost predictably, our first view of Welles' is of his shadow. This interpretation is less tragic, 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 the 1977 "Star Wars" and 1979 "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 as egos clash and a marriage implodes and, perhaps, pique 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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