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Orson's Shadow

Written by: Austin Pendleton
Directed by: David Cromer
Cast: Susan Bennett, John Judd, Tracy Letts, Lee Roy Rogers, Jeff Still, Ian Westerfer
Synopsis: The time is 1960; the place is a West End theatre. Legendary critic Kenneth Tynan has made a startling proposal: Welles should direct Olivier and the young Joan Plowright in 'Rhinoceros,' Ionesco's absurdist masterpiece. But it is the rehearsal process that brims with absurdity as titanic personalities, including Vivien Leigh, wrestle the muse.

For an arts buff like me, a self-referential showbiz show like Orson�s Shadow, written by actor Austin Pendleton, is like manna from heaven. What frequent theatre-goer (or movie-goer, for that matter) wouldn�t want to have been a fly on the wall in 1960 when the great actor-director Orson Welles was goaded by the great theater critic Kenneth Tynan into trying to direct the great actor-theater manager Laurence Olivier in the London premiere of Ionesco�s absurdist farce Rhinoceros.

On the other hand, I doubt that everybody is as interested in the fact that Tynan (probably best known as the producer of the 1960s nudie musical �O, Calcutta!� and for other even-less-savory things revealed in his published diaries) smoked and stuttered ad nauseam, or that Welles loved to eat 2 steaks per meal and may have had trouble finishing things, or that Olivier was totally intimidated by the ravings of his second wife, the great actress Vivien Leigh, while simultaneously being hen-pecked by his girlfriend (later third wife), the great actress Joan Plowright.

In other words: Theatrical gossip and backstage histrionics may not be your cup of tea. But if you can conjure up any interest in such things, this is a show to see.

Staged at the Steppenwolf in Chicago in 2000 and snappily directed by David Cromer, the actors in the roles of the three most-familiar personages�John Judd as Larry, Jeff Still as Orson, and Lee Roy Rogers as Vivien�originated these roles. Here they are joined by Tracy Letts as Ken, Susan Bennett as Joan, and Ian Westerfer as Sean the ubiquitous stagehand. All are wonderful in their parts but I must say that their impersonations are greatly aided by a series of appropriate costumes by Theresa Squire�for Larry, period eyeglasses; for Orson, suspenders; for Vivien, a white mink stole; for Ken, a trench coat; and for Joan, a tight sweater and a pair of Capri pants. The backstage set, designed by Takeshi Kata and lit by Tyler Micoleau, is dark.

The highlight of Orson�s Shadow for me came in the scene where Welles (the director) and Olivier (the actor) were trying to work a scene from Rhinoceros and their improvisation involves dusting�furniture, people, you name it. Quite a good rendering of the artistic process at its best.


What the critics had to say.....

CHARLES ISHERWOOD of the NEW YORK TIMES says �Sharp-witted but tender-hearted.�
GORDON COX of NEWSDAY says "Once the momentum picks up in the second half, there's fun to be had in watching these geniuses succumb to petty bickering."
MICHAEL SOMMERS of STAR-LEDGER says "Pendleton's dreary play, ... really is a lot of backstage bosh and not likely to linger long at the Barrow Street Theatre."
MICHAEL KUCHWARA of Associated Press says "Does more than drop famous names � it illuminates them in an engrossing backstage story of celebrity insecurity."

External links to full reviews.

New York Times
Associated Press

Originally published on