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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

Orson's Shadow

Orson's Shadow
Wilbur Edwin Henry and Anthony Newfield
The current production at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, MD, Orson's Shadow, offers many pleasures: a gossipy look backstage at some past luminaries of stage and screen; yet another depiction of the business that there's no business like; and at a deeper level, some fascinating issues of identity and living up to one's legend. It's also great to see director Jerry Whiddon, longtime producing artistic director at Round House, make such a polished, enjoyable return to his former home.

Playwright Austin Pendleton began with an original idea by Judith Auberjonois, then did extensive research to create this behind-the-scenes portrait of a stormy collision involving some of the most prominent theatrical personalities of the last century. The setting is a 1960 London production of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist play Rhinoceros, directed by Orson Welles (William Edwin Henry), starring Sir Laurence Olivier (Anthony Newfield) and Joan Plowright (Connan Morrissey), who was to marry Olivier after his divorce from Vivien Leigh (Kathryn Kelley). The influential critic Kenneth Tynan (Will Gartshore), a friend of Welles, brokered the deal.

The friction begins immediately between Welles and Olivier, two remarkably talented artists with egos to match. Welles first appears backstage in Dublin where he's playing Falstaff in his adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IV plays to sparse audiences; he hates that people know him only for his work on Citizen Kane - a brilliant movie, he admits, but one he did when he was a child of 26. Olivier, meanwhile, wants to follow up his triumphant performance in John Osborne's The Entertainer with another new play: "No one knows it," says the man renowned for his Shakespearean roles, "but I'm a modernist." Both actors have created performances that evoke their familiar characters without strictly imitating them.

Tynan serves as the audience's guide, periodically breaking the fourth wall to add exposition (including a very funny, self-aware bit at the beginning). Gartshore, known mostly for his musical roles, here gets the chance to portray a man whose sharp intellect and wit are tempered by a nasty smoker's cough (Tynan died of emphysema at the age of 53) and a nervous stutter.

Kelley gives a marvelously detailed, attention-getting performance as Leigh, the screen's Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche DuBois, dealing with bipolar disorder and her own fears: she is preparing for the first time to appear onstage in New York without her husband, Olivier, and she knows about his affair with the younger, outspoken Plowright. Morrissey holds her own, as does Clinton Brandhagen as an Irish stagehand.

Daniel Conway's scenic design and Daniel MacLean Wagner's lighting design bring the backstage atmosphere to life with a lot of thoughtful detail.

Round House Theatre
Orson's Shadow
January 31st February 25th
By Austin Pendleton, conceived by Judith Auberjonois
Ken: Will Gartshore
Sean: Clinton Brandhagen
Orson: Wilbur Edwin Henry
Larry: Anthony Newfield
Joan: Connan Morrissey
Vivien: Kathryn Kelley
Directed by Jerry Whiddon
4545 East-West Highway
Bethesda, MD
Ticket Information: 240-644-1100 or www.roundhousetheatre.org


Photo: Stan Barouh


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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