Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Stimulating Production of Orson's Shadow

Marin Theatre opens its 40th season with a provocative production of Austin Pendleton's Orson's Shadow playing through October 8th. Director Lee Sankowich has assembled a brilliant cast to portray the real life characters in this cultural history piece.

I was particularly interested in seeing this play when it played Off-Broadway since the lead character is the great Orson Wells. I had a working relationship with Orson when I working at Republic studio. He came to the Studio City lot to produce and direct Shakespeare's "Scottish play," and I was lucky enough to be an assistant cameraman on the project.

Orson's Shadow's first act takes place on the stage of the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin in 1960 where Orson (Steve Irish) is performing the stage version of Chimes at Midnight. He is looking for money to produce this play as a film since he is non grata in Hollywood. Renowned New Yorker critic Kenneth Tynan (Liam Vincent) comes to Dublin with a plan to resurrect the famed actor's reputation. His plan is to link Orson with Laurence Olivier (Nicholas Hormann) and his young paramour Joan Plowright (Deborah Taylor Barrera) in a production of Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros at the newly formed National Theatre in London.

Tynan has to coax Wells to direct the theatre of the absurd piece. Wells really does not want to direct anything this modern; however, the legendary actor/director finally agrees after much teasing and tormenting. Orson also holds a grudge against Olivier since he claims Olivier destroyed Wells in 1948 by refusing to allow Vivian Leigh to play Lady Macbeth in his Republic film. Tynan says "Are they all as neurotic as you, Orson?" Orson replies, "Worse than me. I at least am talented."

Tynan also has to banter with the self-doubting Olivier to accept Orson Wells as director. Olivier is deeply insecure about his relationship to the "angry young man" syndrome that is becoming popular on the London stage ("Is Larry Olivier finally ready to disappear and join the modern age?"). This is the time when the traditional aristocratic environment of English Theatre is giving way to the new working class voice of playwrights like John Osborne.

The two men finally agree to a tenuous pact. Into this mix comes Olivier's wife Vivian Leigh (Amy Resnick), who is unstable with a neurotic illness. Olivier must balance himself with the negotiations of the two women in his life. Olivier offers kindness and support to his unpredictable wife and then defers to his new love's sound reasoning and advice.

The second act takes place on the stage of the Royal Court Theatre in London where there are striking confrontations among all of the characters. Not only are there major dynamics between the lead characters but minor ones as well with Sean (Zac Jaffee), Wells's fervent and submissive assistant. The play really takes off in this act when Wells and Olivier begin strong altercations; the rehearsal scene is inspired, with Olivier suffering over every movement with a purist's fanatical compulsiveness.

Pendleton's script is full of rich theatrical remarks, and the topnotch acting and direction make the playwright's words come to life. The characters actually don't have clear points of view on the Ionesco play since none of the characters like it. They are simply there due to ulterior motives.

Steve Irish (Long Christmas Ride Home at the Magic, The Gamester and Lillie at ACT) nails the role of Orson Wells. He captures every part of the voice and manner of the giant of movie making. He plays the role naïve but in his own mind doomed to never be recognized in his own time.

Nicholas Hormann (New York Wintertime at Second Stage and The Retreat from Moscow at South Coast Rep) is uneven in the role of Laurence Olivier. At first, he speaks so rapidly that parts of his speech are unintelligible. However, the actor gets into the role of the renowned actor in the second act and the war of words between Olivier and Orson are superb. Hormann gives you the idea that Olivier was really a spoiled child when rehearsing a play. (Olivier once told me he would allow no one in the theatre when he was rehearsing. This play brings out the reason why.)

Liam Vincent (Charlie Cox Runs with Scissor, Visions of Kerouac and Pride and Prejudice) is galvanizing in the role of critic Kenneth Tynan. He gives an amazing performance of a person with a speech impediment, especially when speaking to Olivier and as Tynan is dying of emphysema. In one scene in the first act, he turns to the audience and delivers a side-splitting show as an impertinent maid repeating a telephone caller's dumb questions, answering the caller in carefree detail.

Amy Resnick (Pride and Prejudice, Small Tragedy, Old Neighborhood) gives a splendid performance as Olivier's slightly eccentric wife Vivien Leigh. She has the speech and manner of this great actress, and her mental breakdown scene in the second act is right on the mark.

Deborah Taylor Barrera (New York The Good Body, Shockheaded Peter) has little to do in the production but is able to capture a young Joan Plowright with an unperturbed ease that is a good counterpoint to Hormann's Olivier. Zac Jaffee (The Hopper Collection) is excellent as the inexperienced gofer for Orson Wells.

Director Lee Sankowich has cast everyone exceptionally well and the scenes move smoothly. He gets the cleverness of the work remarkably. Lighting by Kurt Landisman is evocative; Eric Sinkkonen's bare set and Laura Hazlett's period costumes are excellent. Norman Kern's original score and sound design are first rate.

Orson's Shadow plays through October 8th at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley, Ca. For tickets call 415-388-5208 or online at Their next production will Moliere's Tartuffe opening on November 9th.

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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