Wednesday, July 4, 2007

"Orson's Shadow" at ART

Saw this play a week ago at Artists Repertory Theatre. It's closed now, but I still thought I'd write it up.

Photo of Alexander Korda, Orson Welles and Vivien Leigh from if charlie parker was a gunslinger....

Austin Pendleton's hit play Orson's Shadow is a backstage comedy-drama about what comes after fame, success, and celebrity. It takes place in 1960--about 2 decades after Orson Welles made Citizen Kane, Vivien Leigh made Gone with the Wind, and "Larry" Olivier made Rebecca. The trendy theatre critic Ken Tynan brings Orson, Larry, and Larry's new flame Joan Plowright together to stage Ionesco's Rhinoceros, whereupon all hell breaks loose. Larry is a preening diva, Orson has been a failure for over a decade, Ken is nervous and sickly, and Vivien is manic-depressive. Only Joan is really presented in a positive light, as a smart and hardworking young actress who has great sympathy for her rival, Vivien. I wonder if Pendleton had to do this because Joan Plowright is the only one of these figures still alive.

Kudos to Pendleton for discovering such a rich dramatic situtation and cast of characters. For instance, Orson, Ken, and Larry all hate Rhinoceros, but the play convincingly explains why they each decide to produce it. Orson hates Larry for "ruining me in Hollywood in 1948" but loves Ken and Vivien. Ken, the famously waspish critic who slammed Vivien's Cleopatra (she still hasn't forgiven him), idolizes both Larry and Orson like an awestruck fan. Here is a man who loves "not wisely but too well." Actually, that goes for all of the characters. And they hate too well, also. Their relationships are complex and well-explored, full of interesting parallels and contrasts.

Pendleton has a harder time beginning and ending his play. The story requires a lot of exposition in order to make sense and Pendleton, not wanting to use the time-honored device of staging a conversation between two characters that reveals all the relevant information, instead makes a joke out of it. It looks like such a conversation will begin between Ken and a young stagehand, until Ken turns to the audience and says "I wouldn't want to make that nice young man a vehicle for exposition," and does a monologue explaining the situation. This postmodern cutesiness annoyed me. The end of the play is similar: just when the passions and and tensions boil over, the action stops and Joan delivers a monologue explaining what happened to all of the characters in the future. It's too quiet an ending for a play so full of wit and conflict.

Todd Van Voris did a great job as Orson Welles, capturing the physique, the rich baritone voice, and the emotions of a man who once had it all, lost it, blames other people for his problems, knows deep down it's really his fault, but is determined to stick with his art. Followspot said it better than I could: "a brooding, wounded giant with a voice that can wake the dead." Susan Maginn was a very vulnerable and sympathetic Vivien Leigh--the way she alternated between self-aware acceptance of her mental illness, and complete irrationality, was skillful and sad. Michael Mendelson captured all of Ken Tynan's tics and neuroses, including a great emphysema attack in Act II.

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