June 13, 2008

Big Egos, Barbed Banter

By Christopher Blank

"Orson's Shadow," now onstage at Circuit Playhouse, comes on the heels of "The Compleat Stage Beauty," another play about life in the theater. Both are packed with inflated egos, barbed banter in English accents and numerous references to Shakespeare.

Even the themes make them appear to be companion pieces for people fascinated by the inner workings of this business we call show.

"Stage Beauty" concerned a 17th century actor who specialized in female roles. The quasi-historical play delved into his struggle to reinvent himself when changes in English law put the cross-dressing man out of work.

Flash forward to a theater in 1960 for "Orson's Shadow." The also quasi-historical play recounts one of the more unusual collaborations in the annals of the modern stage. The renowned theater critic Kenneth Tynan (an exemplar of the advocate critic) asks Orson Welles, adrift on his swollen ego, to direct the famously difficult stage actor Laurence Olivier in a new play by the absurdist Eugene Ionesco.

Average mortals may get swamped in Austin Pendleton's multi- layered theatrical fantasy.

Welles, past his creative peak as the young genius behind "War of the Worlds" and "Citizen Kane," is now an overweight curmudgeon playing Falstaff in Dublin, unable to finance his dream film, "Chimes at Midnight." His friend Tynan thinks Welles could make a comeback by directing a modern play.

Tynan is a meaty role for actor Jerry Chipman, who inhabits the critic with a seasoned wit tempered by a deep respect for the craft. Like Welles, Tynan is at a crux in his life, suffering from emphysema while wanting to do more for the theater.

Olivier, meanwhile, is suffering an identity crisis with the rise of method acting and hotshot performers such as Marlon Brando. In Ionesco's "The Rhinoceros," he's asked to play a man who is virtually invisible - a far cry from his grandiose Shakespearean kings. "I am a giant in chains!" screams actor Tony Isbell as the frustrated Olivier.

Olivier's transformation from star to has-been comes at the same time as his divorce from Vivien Leigh (Irene Crist) and a new romance with Joan Plowright (Mary Buchignani).

Directed by Pamela Poletti, "Orson's Shadow" is bolstered by a cast able to reveal multiple layers of artistry, in a generally comic way. Isbell and Chipman, veterans of the local stage, certainly balance the dueling characteristics of many great artists: extreme confidence and raging insecurity. Crist is a rather frightening Vivien Leigh, the "Gone with the Wind" actress suffering from mental illness.

As Welles, newcomer Nate Smith doesn't quite hold his own . He's too young for the role , and needs a few years to grow into the part of a diminished giant.

There are times watching this play when one feels like Sean, the Irish stagehand played by John Hemphill, who doesn't seem to know who any of these people are or why they behave the way they do.

But even without knowing why Ionesco is relevant, one can watch this tragicomedy of falling stars and see how great artists are able to keep moving forward when their greatest work is behind them.

- Christopher Blank: 529-2305


theater review

'Orson's Shadow'

Through July 6 at Circuit Playhouse. Shows are 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25 adults, $20 seniors and students. Call 726-4656. playhouseonthesquare.org


Originally published by Christopher Blank [email protected] .

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