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Humor, Drama, and Titanic Personalities: ‘Orson’s Shadow’ Opens at Silver Spring Stage by Lennie Magida

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Humor, Drama, and Titanic Personalities: Orson’s Shadow at Silver Spring Stage

Real-life…and larger than life. Those are the kinds of characters who will be holding court on Colesville Road for the next four weekends as Silver Spring Stage presents Austin Pendleton’s Orson’s Shadow, a comedy laced with jolts of tension and titanic characters.

Lena-Winter (Joan), Bill Hurlbut (Larry-) and David-Dieudonne (Ken). Photo by Harvey Levine.

Lena-Winter (Joan), Bill Hurlbut (Larry), and David-Dieudonne (Ken). Photo by Harvey Levine.

“Orson” is, of course, Orson Welles, portrayed in the Stage’s production by Michael Kharfen. Kharfen says the up-close atmosphere of Silver Spring Stage is perfect for Orson’s Shadow, “an intimate play with six actors that fills the stage to the brim with huge personalities, intelligence, and passion.”

In the 1940s and 50s, Orson Welles achieved massive stature both physically and professionally. But the play is set in 1960, and by then Orson is adrift, looking for a way to reclaim his glory and shed the overpowering shadow of his genius first film Citizen Kane.

Joining him in Orson’s Shadow is a theatrical god: Laurence Olivier, referred to as Larry and played by Bill Hurlbut. It’s a difficult time for Larry, too. “In 1960, Olivier was on a personal and professional precipice,” says Hurlbut. “He is being pulled in many directions at once and often beyond his breaking point.” His marriage to the emotionally fragile Vivien Leigh (Leta Hall) is troubled; he’s begun to romance the woman who would become his next wife, actress Joan Plowright (Lena Winter); and professionally he’s dealing with the difficult work of starting the National Theatre of Great Britain.

What brings Orson and Larry together – and stirs Vivien, Joan, and a stagehand named Sean (Kenneth Matis) into the mix? An audacious (and, again, real-life) proposal by legendary critic Kenneth Tynan (David Dieudonne) for Orson to direct Larry and Joan in Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.

Rhinoceros is an absurdist play that’s far off Welles’ and Olivier’s usual radar. But they go along with the idea because it seems necessary – neither man is where he wants to be, or where he thinks he deserves to be. “I am a giant in chains,” says Larry. Orson responds: “I know how you feel. Oh, I know how you feel.”

Presented with a script full of luminaries, Director Seth Ghitelman says he wanted his cast “to find the reality of the person, not imitation. I encouraged the actors to do research, but in the end the decision would be what makes more sense for this play and for the audience to understand the show rather than historical accuracy.”

The actors say they followed Ghitelman’s urging, learning about the real people, watching videos when possible, but ultimately crafting their own characters. For example, Winter says that in developing her character of Joan, she wanted to avoid “mimicking” Plowright and instead sought “to focus on bringing her to life as a thinking, feeling, breathing human being” – who, she adds, happens to be “trapped between two titanic personalities and egos.”

For critic Ken Tynan, Dieudonne says he worked on hitting certain characteristics, such as “his stammer, the pre-emphysema cough, the way he held his cigarette.” But because Ken is less well-known to today’s public than Orson or Larry, Dieudonne says he then felt he had “leeway” to explore ways to show where Tynan was in 1960: “He held a lot of sway in his chosen career of criticism, but he’s longing for more. Ken is the one character in this play that I feel has his fingers in all the pies. He has a stake in everything.”

The stakes are high for everyone in this play. Orson, Larry, and Ken have attained colossal peaks in their careers…but what now? what does the new era hold? Vivien is struggling to cling to stability in her personality, marriage, and career. Joan is navigating her own place as an actress and as Larry’s new life partner. There’s intense energy and tension, currents of sadness and bewilderment, and lots of ego.

Michael Kharfen (Orson), Leta Hall (Vivien), Kenneth Matis (Sean). Photo by Harvey Levine.

Michael Kharfen (Orson), Leta Hall (Vivien), Kenneth Matis (Sean). Photo by Harvey Levine.

And yet…Orson’s Shadow is a comedy. Humor abounds, says Ghitelman, as “the characters try to overcome the obstacles of the Rhinoceros project – the egos, conflicts, jealousies, et cetera.” Kharfen notes that the characters “are facing major crossroads in their lives, and they use comedy to balance the fear, anger, hope, confusion, loss and pain they are enduring.”

Besides, he adds, “there’s nothing like everything going wrong at the same time to make you laugh.”

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Orson’s Shadow plays weekends from January 9-31, 2015 at Silver Spring Stage – located in the Woodmoor Shopping Center -10145 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD 20901.

Performances are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., plus Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on January 18 and 25. Regular ticket price is $20, but $10 tickets are available for select performances on Goldstar. Purchase tickets online. 

There is also a Pay-What-You-Can preview TONIGHT – Thursday, January 8, at 8 p.m. 

Tomorrow’s opening night performance will be followed by a reception to which all audience members are invited.

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