I would say that Austin Pendleton’s Orson’s Shadow is the best show I’ve seen all year, even though the year is only about a week old. So, I will state it is the best show I have seen since I saw Vanya and Sonia and Marsha and Spike on Broadway – and that production received the Tony Award for Best Play.
The story of Orson’s Shadow is a theaterlover’s dream. The conflict is between the larger-than life Orson Welles and the larger than life Laurence Olivier. It is an insightful look at these two men whose talent was only eclipsed by their egos. There are some strong dramatic moments, especially when Olivier deals with his soon to be ex-wife, Vivian Leigh, but there is so much humor as well. The badinage between the two principals and famous theater critic and producer, Kenneth Tynan, are laugh-out-loud funny.
The directing of Seth Ghitelman is imaginative, and the creates some lasting images. The long soliloquies and monologues are so beautifully staged that you never lose the concentration on the speaker. The set is simplistic as it should be (The set was also designed by Mr. Ghitelman). Most of the scenes take place backstage at theaters in Dublin and London.
Hats off to dialect coach Gary Sullivan. The accents are natural, and the actors hold them throughout the production. I could hear every word; even the ones given off stage. The costumes are credited to Emma Gorin and are perfect for 1960 when the play takes place. Even the padding for Orson Welles seems comfortable and not ridiculous looking.
The acting is tight and clean. I always marvel that actors can memorize all those lines. In this play there are often times when you realize later that there are pages of lines without other characters talking, or barely talking, and you never get bored. The hardest part of acting, though, is to make the dialogue seem like the character could say nothing else and this is the first time the lines are being spoken. The whole cast does this and more.
Michael Kharfen’s Orson Welles moves around the stage like a man who is very overweight but yet, still has the grace from his younger days as a leading man. He delivers his lines with humor and insight into this genius of the theater and cinema. Whether he is berating his friend, Ken, or trying to calm down the manic Miss Leigh, we are fooled into believing we are watching Mr. Welles in person.
The Olivier role could become sad and pathetic if played by an actor with less ability, but Bill Hurlbut walks that tightrope perfectly. He is never too unhappy and never loses that large ego. His best scene is the rehearsal of Rhinoceros, the play that Sir Laurence portrayed a peasant under the direction of Mr. Welles. We see Olivier not only as an actor realizing he is past his peak, at least the peak of his popularity, but also the Olivier who has been a renowned director himself now having to take orders from his rival.
I saw Joan Plowright in a play directed by her husband, Olivier, over 20 years ago, and Lena Winter has many of the actress’ nuances, most notably in the rehearsal scene. You can see how Olivier could be attracted to her, and how she learned to live with the fact that he would always love Vivian Leigh. She shows the actress’ strength, but also we can see her doubts about her relationship with Larry, as they call ‘Sir Laurence.’
Leta Hall as Vivian Leigh makes us believe that, despite her madness (bipolar before there were medications to help with this illness), and also her physical frailness due to her having tuberculosis, Olivier can still care for her so much. She can be a needy child one minute and a groping sex maniac the next.
Kenneth Matis’ as Sean, Welles’ assistant, has the right feel of someone who was willing to put up with Welles’ demanding behavior to get a career. Welles seems to enjoy teaching this neophyte about the dramatic arts, and Sean is just dense enough that we believe him when he is surprised to learn that Mr. Welles had intercourse with Rita Hayworth because they were married.
I save the highest accolade for last. David Dieudonné as Ken Tynan has the difficult task of reciting many long monologues and soliloquies. The character also is ill with emphysema and has several frightening coughing spells – the last so bad he cannot blow out a candle. Tynan loved Welles like a father. He had a miserable childhood (his mother was crazy and father lead a double life all this with bombs dropping near his English home), Dieudonné effectively portrayed this tense and nervous man who also became very a revolutionary groundbreaker in theater and movies in the 1960s. We watch him sublimate his own ego for the larger ones around him, and yet, he believably manipulates them all under the large shadow of Orson Welles.
A great production should be informative – whether we learn about the characters or the world – believable – even it is fantasy – and exciting. Orson’s Shadow has it all! Kudos need to go to Silver Spring Stage for producing this edgy play. Orson’s Shadow is a ‘Must See,’ so don’t miss it!
Silver Spring Stage is offering more innovative and offbeat shows during their 2015 season. Check their season schedule.
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.
Orson’s Shadow plays through January 31, 2015 at Silver Spring Stage –located in the Woodmoor Shopping Center -10145 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, check select performances on Goldstar for discount tickets, or purchase them online.