by Rebecca M. Alvin
TOP IMAGE: Phillip Hays as Kenneth Tynan, Christopher “Chiz” Chisholm as Orson Welles, and Abigail Solomon as Vivien Leigh in Orson’s Shadow. Photo: Michael & Suz Karchmer
Great minds think alike. Or perhaps they suffer alike, often afflicted with emotional torment of their own making. In Austin Pendleton’s 2000 play Orson’s Shadow, three geniuses come together in the process of producing a London production of Eugéne Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (the work of another genius). Kenneth Tynan (Philip Hays), then a theater and film critic for The New Yorker (who would later go on to co-write Oh! Calcutta) proposes to the great thespian Sir Laurence Olivier (John Feltch), who has just become the artistic director of the National Theatre, that his production of Rhinoceros should be directed by the great Orson Welles (Christopher “Chiz” Chisholm), who at that time was struggling to fill seats in a Dublin production of his Chimes at Midnight. The production will also star Joan Plowright (Kelsey Torstveit), then an up-and-comer having an affair with Olivier, who is still entangled with his wife, Vivien Leigh (Abigail Rose Solomon), who is suffering from manic depression.
The description alone is dense. The production of Rhinoceros depicted in Pendleton’s play did in fact happen in 1960, with all of these real people involved. Although some artistic license is taken with where each was in his/her life, the story is so embedded in real-life theatrical and Hollywood legend, that it veers toward the esoteric. If you know the histories, filmographies, and theatrical careers of these giants of the performing and cinematic arts, you will revel in the references throughout Orson’s Shadow. If not, you may be scratching your head at quite a few moments in this dialogue-rich play. It’s not that you need to have seen Rhinoceros (although WHAT brilliantly gives you that opportunity by staging a production of it there on alternating nights with Orson’s Shadow). It’s more that you need to understand the particular genius of Orson Welles and the way the Hollywood System destroyed him in order to fully grasp what Pendleton is talking about.
That being said, Orson’s Shadow is extremely funny and insightful, especially if you know actors and if you have ever been a part of the rehearsal process, which in this play is where all of the demons come out. These larger-than-life geniuses are brought down to earth by Welles’ adorably non-theatrical Irish assistant Sean (Ryan Sheehan) and Plowright, not yet a big enough star to reach the level of narcissism of the men.
The conversations, arguments, and downright battles between Olivier and Welles reveal the frailty of artists, even those who are so extremely talented and well rewarded for their brilliance. Perhaps it is a cliché to dramatize the tortured artist/genius, and at times the play itself seems aware of this, but such stereotypes came about for a reason. Certainly, Welles can be seen as a victim of his own brilliance, too ahead of his time for his own good, but here we’re reminded that even Olivier, who didn’t really struggle to achieve the accolades and opportunities he deserved, was still an artist, striving for something just beyond reach, always.
Orson’s Shadow is performed through September 29, Wednesday – Friday, 8 p.m. and Saturday, September 21 and Sunday, September 29, 2 p.m. at WHAT, 2357 Route 6, Wellfleet. For tickets ( $25-$39, student and senior discounts available) and information, call 508.349.9428 or visit what.org.