Review: "Orson's Shadow" is a Fantastic Revival about Artistic Revival

Orson's Shadow

Written by Austin Pendleton

Directed by Austin Pendleton

Presented by Crystal Field, Executive Artistic Director of Theater for the New City, in association with Oberon Theatre Ensemble and Strindberg Rep at Theater for the New Cityheater for the New City

155 1st Ave., Manhattan, NYC

March 14-31, 2024

Patrick Hamilton as Kenneth Tynan, Brad Fryman as Orson Welles. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Orson Welles; Laurence Olivier; Vivian Leigh: they stand as towering figures in the history of stage and screen. Orson's Shadow, from the multitalented Austin Pendleton, himself no less than a theatrical luminary, renders a spellbinding portrait of these stars attempting to navigate their professional and personal lives as living legends in the face of an onrushing future. One might, for example, read the play's title as referring to the long shadow cast by Welles on others and on history but also to the shadow cast by Citizen Kane on everything that Welles did or attempted afterwards. As theater critic and close friend of Welles Ken Tynan (Patrick Hamilton) remarks in the show, "once one is called a living genius, one only exists to disappoint." Orson's Shadow made its world premiere, in an earlier version, in Chicago in 2000, and recorded an impressive run of nearly 350 shows in NYC in 2005; now, in a new production marking Orson's 25 anniversary, Pendleton himself takes the director's chair, with superlative results.
Natalie Menna as Vivien Leigh, Luke Hofmaier as Sean, the Stage Manager. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Although Orson's Shadow is set in 1960, four years before Bob Dylan released "The Times They Are A-Changin'," that song's admonition to the older generations, stuck on their "old road," to get out of the way of the new certainly resonates. For both Welles (Brad Fryman) and Olivier (Ryan Tramont), their greatest achievements, at least as far as the public is concerned, are firmly in the past, with Olivier wedded to the outmoded acting style and method with which he made his fame and Welles arguably suffering from being too ahead of his time, what the play calls more than once the "modern age." In keeping with this theme, Olivier is even in the process of trading in Leigh (Natalie Menna), his wife of two decades–most remembered for a film a year older than Citizen Kane and embroiled in struggles with manic-depression–for a more contemporary model, Joan Plowright (Kim Taff), who would marry Olivier in 1961 and would continue acting into the 2000s. Even as he romances and works with Plowright, however, Oliver doesn't seem to be able to accept her as a modern actress who embraces the shift to a more spontaneous acting style (and less likable characters).
Kim Taff as Joan Plowright. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Orson's Shadow finds Welles at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre, playing Falstaff in a commercially unsuccessful Shakespeare adaptation that would lead to his 1966 film Chimes at Midnight. Tynan, wishing to lend his friend's career a hand, proposes a plan to have Welles direct Oliver and Plowright in a London production of Eugène Ionesco's 1959 absurdist play Rhinocéros. Welles, though, blames Olivier for his post-1948 exile from Hollywood (though he also claims to be close to readmittance via Universal Studios) and considers the soon-to-be-divorced Leigh a friend who understands him. Questions of responsibility for career trajectory recur in relation to multiple characters, and, of equal importance, among clashes in ego and practice, is the question of whether the incongruity of casting Olivier as Ionesco's modern everyman Bérenger represents for the proposed production a strength or a fatal flaw.
Ryan Tramont as Laurence Olivier, Kim Taff as Joan Plowright. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
This production of Orson's Shadow, itself a play concerned with film and theater performance and aesthetics, includes a few fourth-wall-breaking passages (two of which bookend the play and constitute a sort of passing of the torch), a gap in the curtains at the rear that give a peek backstage in symbolic parallel to what the onstage action is engaged in, and a use of the word "Macbeth" that is at first funny and finally borders on chilling. Appropriately for the play's subject(s), these flourishes frame first-rate performances. Fryman infuses the Wellesian bluster that one might expect with sympathetic self-awareness, while Tramont's Olivier, who has his own moments of honest self-assessment, might best be compared to an urbane steamroller. Menna lends an engrossing authenticity to the increasing pressures on Leigh, while Taff deftly blends Plowright's exasperation with and mollification of Olivier with her own strength of character and artistic convictions. Luke Hofmaier has some great comic moments as genial Irish stage manager Sean, whose imperturbability in the execution of his duties does not cancel out his capacity to be a bit starstruck; and Hamilton, never without a cigarette in hand, is superb as Tynan. As much as time may seem to outpace the characters in Orson's Shadow, it positively flies by for its audience.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


Popular posts from this blog

Review: The Immersive "American Blues: 5 Short Plays by Tennessee Williams" Takes Audiences on a Marvelously Crafted Journey

Review: Nancy Redman’s "A Séance with Mom" Conjures Mother-Daughter Hilarity and Love

Review: From Child Pose to Stand(ing) Up: "Yoga with Jillian" and "Penguin in Your Ear" at the Women in Theatre Festival