Orson's Shadow

Austin Pendleton
Barrow Street Theater, New York

Production photo
Production photo

Orson's Shadow has been a major Off-Broadway success, running at the 200 seat Barrow Street for over nine months. It is a strange, very theatrical piece, which is set in 1960 and looks at some of the greats of that era.

The play operates on two different levels. First, it brings together Laurence Olivier, his current and future wives, critic/artistic adviser Kenneth Tynan and Orson Welles. Then it takes a look at the Theatre of the Absurd and proceeds to produces a sometimes uncomfortable marriage between the two.

John Ahlin's now massive Orson Welles peaked early, producing Citizen Kane and the War of the Worlds as a young man. Almost twenty years on, he is in the wilderness desperately trying to make his Falstaff play, Chimes at Midnight, work (and sell seats) at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, with the distant hope of a film version to follow.

His great friend Ken Tynan, played by Scott Parkinson, is working for The New Yorker and beginning to succumb to emphysema, not helped by his chain smoking. He aspires to become Olivier's right-hand man when the new National Theatre of Great Britain is created and sees Orson as his key.

The relationship between Ken Marks' Olivier and Welles is strained to say the least, following bitter rivalries in the past. The former's life is made no easier by his wife's madness.

Lee Roy Rogers, as the gorgeous Vivien Leigh, plays a drunken nymphomaniac who is suffering from tuberculosis. She may be deranged but even she can spot that her husband is trying to replace her with his much younger current leading lady, Susan Bennett's well-grounded Joan Plowright.

The link between this diverse crew is an opportunity to stage Ionesco's Rhinoceros at the Royal Court where Olivier and Plowright have just been so successful in The Entertainer.

The future Lord may hate Ionesco as much as Welles does but he is keen to lose his reputation as a solely classical actor by playing something modern and no doubt happy to have a chance to please Miss Plowright at the same time.

It takes some time to realise that the Monty Python style of acting, with Olivier cast as John Cleese at his most unctuous, is an attempt to bring the Absurd style to what should be a staid biographical piece about an interesting bunch of characters. It is really over the top and the OTT goes OTT as the cast members begin to compete as to who can shout loudest.

The conclusion is that Orson's Shadow is a mix of the very funny, the highly informative and the massively irritating. Different viewers will take away very diverse impressions, depending on their knowledge of theatre history and outlook on life.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher