Amply supporting Irving Berlin’s assertion “There’s no people like show people,” “Orson’s Shadow” imaginatively re-creates a stage collaboration between Orson Welles (Bruce McGill) and Laurence Olivier (Charles Shaughnessy) to bring out the unique joys and terrors of artistic careers lived large. Of course, Berlin went on to observe “They smile when they are low,” which proves not to be the case during this clash of the titans in the very serious business of getting a play right. Most of the smiling is done by the audience of the absolutely smashing production at the Pasadena Playhouse.
In addition to his brisk pacing and evocative stage pictures, helmer Damaso Rodriguez (recently elevated to associate status under Playhouse a.d. Sheldon Epps) fearlessly encourages his Herculean figures to strut their stuff full-tilt. They’re never reduced to everyday naturalism; indeed, playwright Austin Pendleton makes Olivier’s inability to play the modern drama’s “little man” a plot fulcrum.
Fleshing out Judith Auberjonois’ idea for a play about the 1960 premiere of Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” at London’s Royal Court, Pendleton invented and conflated events and cobbled together a host of incidents and quotes, some real, others apocryphal, to fill the rehearsal stage (beautifully run-down in Gary Wissmann’s design) with a lifetime’s worth of gossip, pissing contests and long-withheld accusations.
Were “Rhinoceros” rehearsals really so fixated on Rita Hayworth and Scarlett O’Hara? Did Welles and Olivier actually go around mentioning “Citizen Kane” or “That Hamilton Woman” all day long? (Well, maybe Welles and “Kane.”)
But “Orson’s Shadow,” as truthful as a fable, nevertheless persuades because veteran actor-director Pendleton knows his people. Ambitious critic Kenneth Tynan (Scott Lowell) had nothing to do with the Ionesco project, but his brokering it to insinuate himself into Olivier’s burgeoning National Theater is wholly in character. We sense veracity in Welles’ willingness to sell out to a play he despises — and work with the man who, he bellows, “ruined me in Hollywood in 1948!” — in order to finance his dream projects.
And having transitioned from Henry V to the scruffy vaudevillian of “The Entertainer,” it seems logical that Olivier would embrace a new play — and working-class co-star Joan Plowright (Libby West) — as a means of escaping an excruciating marriage to glamorous, doomed Vivien Leigh (Sharon Lawrence).
McGill is a dour, efficient, even noble Welles, lacking any eye twinkle but barking bon mots and scarfing down steaks with Falstaffian gusto. Shaughnessy nails Olivier’s clipped diction, though not his obsequious self-deprecation disguising an iron will. Still, as he prowls the rehearsal stage, talking out qualms and options while trying then abandoning a prop or a move, Shaughnessy offers tantalizing glimpses of how a master thespian achieves his effects.
Lowell deftly handles Tynan’s twin roles of urbane narrator and stuttering reclamation project (solicitude for his emphysema bonds the warrior kings). West’s Plowright clearly represents a new era of unfussy acting and plain speaking, aided by Mary Vogt’s costumes instantly announcing period and class, while Nick Cernoch’s tea-boy/prompter offers an amusingly level-headed “civilian” norm against which to measure the others.
Lawrence engages in no impersonation: She remarkably captures Vivien Leigh. Beyond the precise physicalization — bee-stung lips, sly pussycat smile, tremulous alto, hand touching face as she glances fearfully to the side — she believably executes the mood swings of a bipolar artist blithely warning others of a coming episode she’s powerless to prevent.
Certainly Lawrence has studied “A Streetcar Named Desire” and especially “Ship of Fools” (from which Vogt derives the silhouette and hairstyle), but she never seems to be imposing traits of those roles onto Leigh. Just the reverse, in fact. Lawrence shows us how Leigh could locate — in her insecurity, tubercular frailty and encroaching madness — the sources of tortured Blanche and desperate Mary Treadwell.