Orson Welles Outshines His Shadow

christopher stanton and camilla scott

If you would like to be gobsmacked by an entire stage filled with sublime performances, I suggest that you attend the closing (7:30pm) performance of Pilot Group Theatre Company’s production of Orson’s Shadow tonight at the Theatre Passe Muraille (Mainspace).

This play was written by Austin Pendleton and takes place in 1960 and centres on the convoluted clashing of some of Classic Hollywood’s most renowned geniuses, with egos in tow and eccentricities galore. The premise is that British theatre/film critic Kenneth Tynan has brought an extremely bitter and self-loathing Orson Welles together with a young Joan Plowright and Laurence Olivier at the height of the demise of his marriage to a very unstable Vivien Leigh for a production of Ionesco’s absurdist masterpiece Rhinoceros. The result is an evening of explosive theatre in which these titans bring out the worst and the best of one another as they each seek to reinvent themselves at the dawning of a New Artistic Age.

Pendleton offers the audience a chain-smoking Kenneth Tynan as its Narrator, a fascinating choice as he is one of the least iconic of the play’s characters. At the same time, it is apt that Tynan, the critic, tell the story of how his influence manoeuvred the (at least short-term) choices of two men whose work and genius he idolized and his shrewd perception and critical eye, of course, provides the audience with a unique perspective from amid, but still apart from, the experiences of Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier during this project. Pendleton’s dialogue is crisp and witty and he injects an ample dose of humour into even the most dire of situations.

This script is extremely captivating and Rona Waddington’s direction maximizes the combined intensity and awkwardness that comes from cramming these particular individuals into extreme close quarters; however, the brilliance of Pilot Group Theatre’s production is rooted firmly in the performances of six incredible actors.

Geoff Scovell plays Sean, the naïve, often star struck, Irish stagehand who dashes about the stage twinkling with charm. Janet Porter played a Joan Plowright of firm integrity and obvious intelligence. Porter’s performance is most fascinating as she responds to the commotion that quickly consumes her time working with her lover, Olivier, and in particular the way she responds both to overhearing a lengthy telephone conversation between Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh, and her interactions with Leigh when she descends upon the titans to add chaos to confusion. Camilla Scott gave an incredible performance as the impassioned and tempestuous Vivien Leigh filling each word she uttered with such rich contradiction and filling the stage with volatile unease. There was this particularly vivid moment between Scott’s Leigh and Stanton’s Tynan, laden with chemistry, where Scott lit Stanton’s cigarette from her own, which had a strange, yet entirely gripping, seductive quality to it.

Christopher Stanton makes a perfect Kenneth Tynan, stammering and rambling with meticulous pace, filling his constant smoking with a repressed sense of urgent anxiety and switching continuously between the quiet and extremely polite observer, absorbing every minute detail of life, and the intelligent, quick-witted journalist who destroys self-esteem without qualms yet is equally merciless in his sentimental crusade to resurrect lost souls. Paul Eves is haughtily tormented as a Laurence Olivier desperate to forge a new life for himself on this side of the 14th Century and ridden with guilt over the sad state of Vivien Leigh’s mental health. Steve Ross transforms in a riveting performance as Orson Welles fraught with compulsive self-judgement, doubt and the bitter expectation for failure. Ross has captured the looming presence of Orson Welles and his deep, rich voice to magnificent effect and he commands complete attention with a single intense glance. I have seen Steve Ross give fantastic performances in numerous productions, but I must say, in Orson’s Shadow he is a triumph.

Austin Pendleton’s play is an intricate web of the familiar and the colossal and this production gives honour to these fallen giants of yesteryear by bringing forth such gifted Canadian luminaries to bring this story from the shadows onto the stage.

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