Theater Reviews

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Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena
Through Feb. 17


The most entertaining scene in Austin Pendleton's amusingly ironic "Orson's Shadow" finds Laurence Olivier desperately trying to figure out the best way to dust a room, while Orson Welles and Joan Plowright look on in puzzled astonishment.

For an actor accustomed to playing kings, princes and other reasonably extraordinary human beings, dusting a room with your hankie -- Shall I ball it up or let it flap open? -- soon takes on the significance of addressing the troops at Agincourt.

The improbable but mostly true story revolves around an unlikely collaboration between Welles (Bruce McGill) and Olivier (Charles Shaughnessy) on Eugene Ionesco's absurdist parable "Rhinoceros" in London in 1960; Welles is to direct and Olivier to star. Welles, 45, is a discouraged artist whose opportunities are shrinking, in Hollywood and elsewhere, even as his girth expands. As Welles likes to say, the only two things about his life that seem to interest people those days is that he made "Citizen Kane" and "fucked Rita Hayworth," to whom he was married.

Olivier is going through a painful withdrawal from wife Vivien Leigh (Sharon Lawrence) and her deteriorating mental condition. He finally decides to do "Rhinoceros," a play he loathes, partly because he's convinced that he needs to enter "the modern age." This leads to the delicious dusting scene in which Olivier drives everyone to distraction with his strenuous efforts to come to terms with such an ordinary character.

Pendleton, a fine actor and director in his own right (who once worked with Welles), writes sharp, knowing insider's dialogue. But he also gives us glimpses of the terrors that lie behind these colossal egos, especially the way a legendary past has of sucking the air out of an artist's future. The play draws a touching parallel (moreso in the original finely cast production at the Black Dahlia Theatre in 2001) between Welles' life and that of his favorite Shakespearean character, the exiled knight Falstaff -- a parallel that Welles drew in his final film, "Chimes at Midnight."

The play doesn't really ignite until Olivier makes his appearance well into Act 1. Shaughnessy makes a sympathetic Sir Laurence, anxious, insecure and at heart deeply affected by his wife's mental problems and his guilt over leaving her for Plowright, whom he eventually married. McGill gives us a gruff, biting Welles, a man who appears to be marking time while he makes the best of a bad situation that only keeps getting worse.

Lawrence steals every scene she's in as the highly theatrical Leigh, whose mania (as she likes to call it) seems on the verge of consuming her at any moment. Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche DuBois are never far away in this haunting performance.

Scott Lowell does good work as stammering Kenneth Tynan, the famed English critic who brings these two titans together for reasons of his own. West doesn't have much to do until Plowright's final wrap-up scene, and here she's quite moving. Nick Cernoch is Sean, the Irish stagehand who makes a good comic foil.

Damaso Rodriguez, recently appointed associate artistic director at the Playhouse, directs with a good feel for the play's wit as well as its dramatic subtleties. This is a piece that sometimes feels awkwardly constructed, yet at other times flows beautifully and with an eccentric spirit all its own.

Just a thought: Wouldn't Welles have been better suited than Olivier to play a man who turns into a rhinoceros? Since the production bombed, maybe they should have traded places.

ORSON'S SHADOW
The Pasadena Playhouse
Credits:
Playwright: Austin Pendleton
Conceived by: Judith Auberjonois
Director: Damaso Rodriguez
Set designer: Gary Wissman
Lighting designer: Dan Jenkins
Costume designer: Mary Vogt
Sound designer: Cricket Myers
Dance consultant: Art Manke
Cast:
Laurence Olivier: Charles Shaughnessy
Orson Welles: Bruce McGill
Vivien Leigh: Sharon Laurence
Kenneth Tynan: Scott Lowell
Joan Plowright: Libby West
Sean: Nick Cernoch
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