"ORSONS SHADOW" at Chicago Center for the Performing Arts
BY LUCIA MAURO
Beyond the looming light and shadow plays of Jeff Nellis exquisite lighting, "Orsons Shadow" contains a revelatory inner-outer scene that I believe cuts to the quick of Austin Pendletons biting drama. The character of Laurence Olivier points out to British critic Kenneth Tynan that he is wearing a simple "work shirt" under his fine suit of clothes. Olivier, like all of the sad ego-driven names in the play, tries to wrap his humble origins in artistic grandeur forever living in fear that his true self may be revealed.
"Orsons Shadow, which premiered at the Steppenwolf Garage in 2000 and went on to a series of national productions, is enjoying a rapturously bittersweet revival by original director David Cromer and the cast (all except Ned Noyes who replaces Dominic Conti as Irish stagehand Sean) at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts. Pendletons work is a witty dissection of Orson Welles flustered ineffectuality from living in the shadow of his early fame with "Citizen Kane" as he reluctantly directs Olivier and the British stage stars young love, Joan Plowright, in a 1960 production of Ionescos "Rhinoceros."
Ambition and role-playing are at the crux of this play-within-many-plays as the self-destructive critic Tynan tracks down Welles during a failed production of "Chimes at Midnight" in Dublin. Tynan wants to edge his way into an advisory position at the National Theatre of London, which Olivier is soon to head. He blatantly plans to use Welles dubiously uniting the Hollywood director with the man he claims ruined his film career in 1948. Also battling demons in the half-light is Oliviers wife, Vivien Leigh, desperately clinging to the man she both loves and despises and the only person who can quell her glowering manic attacks.
What may sound like romantic melodrama receives forthright and grounded treatment by Pendleton, who pays homage to these large figures glamorous lives yet uncoils their involuntary rope of disintegrating dreams with the mesmerizing skill of a snake charmer. For those infatuated with Olivier and Leigh in their breathless heyday at the Old Vic Theatre as well as their reluctant but triumphant film careers -- can luxuriate in the playwrights artful recreation of their tragic bond. But the story of "Orsons Shadow" one involving the struggles of gifted artists aching to express themselves amid the deafening banter of commerce and celebrity can apply to personalities beyond the specific characters in the play.
When Leigh warns Olivier, "You have no idea what it is to be afraid of life," the heart-piercing nature of that remark can speak to anyone racked with self-doubt.
And, in more universal terms, Pendleton addresses the growing homogeneity of society. The grand star system that crafted legends like Welles, Olivier and Leigh gave way to the democratic anonymity encapsulated in a play like "Rhinoceros" in which kings are replaced by metaphoric beasts representing the rise of Fascism. Olivier, not unlike the remnants of megalomania in us all, truly may not be brave enough as Orson suggests "to disappear."
Cromers fierce yet tender chiaroscuro staging, which left an indelible impression on me in the concrete Steppenwolf Garage, feels even more intimate and foreboding in the graciously worn interior of the CCPA. Set designer Takeshi Katas tilted black-brick wall, within which one can discern remnants of the Oliviers Notley Abbey, frames a vintage stage upon which the characters real and imagined performances collide. Nellis symbolic illumination particularly Welles lit in his signature filmic shadows and Olivier in blinding spotlights seems to carve out these figures damaged and delusional destinies. Jennifer Keller captures whispers of grandeur in her period-precise costumes.
The stellar cast deserves collective cheers for their wise refusal to do impressions of these famous people. Instead they suggest their counterparts while evoking the timeless struggles of these lost giants. John Judd, however, turns in the most complex performance as the inwardly terrified Laurence Olivier. He is magnetically paired with Sarah Wellington as the crisply efficient and quietly ambitious Joan Plowright.
Jeff Still as the grandly immovable Welles replaces bombast with an apparently contradictory but effective mixture of self-deprecating confidence. Lee Roy Rogers harnesses Vivien Leighs acute sense of falling apart at the seams without mimicking the actress Blanche Dubois-like fragility. David Warren, an actor of great subtly and intelligence, wins our sympathy for the emphysema-plagued Ken Tynan at the same time his character seems to wither before our eyes from an excessive exposure to self-loathing. Ned Noyes slightly dim but honest Sean steals many a scene with his low-key gangliness.
But it is Pendleton who embraces, with piquant poetry, the desecration of these heavenly creatures struggling to balance atop their impossibly high perches that dangle above the publics capricious grasp.
"Orsons Shadow" runs through October 13 at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, 777 N. Green St. (at Chicago Ave., one block west of Halsted). Tickets: $35-$39. Call 312-327-2000 or log onto www.theaterland.com.