November 3, 2006

Wordy and bombastic
By David Ollington

Genius met controversy when the playwright/actor/director Orson Welles entered show business. Achieving recognition and success at an early age, he made his first political waves when he staged the Broadway musical The Cradle Will Rock (1937) under the auspices of the Federal Theatre Project, a component of FDR’s Federal Works Project. The sticky labor questions raised in the show inflamed congressional fears of communism and National Guardsmen literally locked down the theatre.

His radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1938) incited panic with its vivid, realistic portrayal of a Martian invasion. His cinematic, artistic triumph Citizen Kane (1941) stands as possibly the greatest film of all time. Unfortunately for Welles, because the film so offensively portrayed newspaper mogul William Randolf Hearst, Hearst pulled the necessary strings to decimate Welles’ nascent career.

With Orson’s Shadow, playwright Austin Pendleton ponders Welles’ situation two decades after this triumphant and (for him) devastating film. Pendleton’s play received its New York debut in 2005, and six actors currently perform it at the Unicorn Theatre. In front of scenery portraying backstage at an empty theatre, Bruce Roach, as theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, enters through the audience and addresses us, explaining the situation.

Two greats of show business, Orson Welles (Jim Birdsall) and actor Lawrence Olivier (Jim Korinke), both need and cannot stand each other. Olivier engages Welles to direct him in the absurdist play Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco. Meanwhile, Olivier’s current wife Vivian Leigh (Melinda McCrary) teeters on the brink of sanity. Actress Joan Plowright (Cinnamon Schultz) provides a more stable and alluring love interest and leading lady for Olivier.

Welles wants most to realize his dream of completing his film Crimes at Midnight, a challenge given that Hollywood has kicked him out of the club. Olivier agonizes over his wife’s plummeting mental health and his simultaneous relationship with Plowright.

The titans clash. Long-winded verbosity, sculptured histrionics and good diction all come together to make for a dry theatrical event. The Unicorn bills the play as a larger-than-life comedy. The audience, however, fails to laugh often. Bombastic actors recite a repetitive script.

The few crowning moments of Orson’s Shadow belong to Birdsall. His look, his manner, and especially his voice bear uncanny resemblance to Welles. With simplicity, he paints the predicament of the fallen genius; a great mind trapped enough to turn to gluttony for escape. Birdsall’s voice expertly and astonishingly emulates Welles’.

Korinke assumes the opposite end of the spectrum. He lists many dinner theatre credits, and he shares the stage with more classical actors. Director Mark Robbins and producer Cynthia Levin made an odd choice this way. Why cast a dinner theatre actor as Olivier, the apotheosis of the classical actor, and put him onstage opposite real classical actors? The actors speak with a passable British dialect; Korinke’s having the most noticeable inconsistency.

McCrary’s Vivian Leigh manages to refresh, if only because Pendleton wrote the part smaller, making Leigh a welcome respite. Appearing with surprise when Olivier telephones her from behind an abruptly opened curtain, she drapes herself on a chaise and bemoans her mental illness. She plays the part with a languishing camp, though, like everyone on the stage, pretentiousness outweighs her humanity.

Doogin Brown performs as Welles’ young assistant Sean. (During an early aside to the audience, Roach as Tynan refers to Sean as a “receptacle for exposition.”) Detached, awkward and endearing, Brown’s Sean serves his employer with a distraction that borders on apathy. The only actor in Orson’s Shadow not listed as a member of Actors Equity Association, Brown evokes the strongest humor, particularly during one scene involving the eating of crumbly scones.

The play’s action occurs backstage at two different but equally archetypal theatres: the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin and the Royal Court Theatre in London. A powerful theatrical superstition serves as a recurrent motif: uttering the word “Macbeth” in a theatre summons the evil spirits. Olivier and Welles (and many actors) use the phrase “The Scottish Play” as an acceptable euphemism.

Adriana Sandoval designed scenery that perfectly placed the action in the venerable theatres. Bricks painted with an appropriately aged austerity cover the back walls. The curtain that opens to reveal Vivian Leigh clearly displays its workings and taped repairs. Yes, we’re in a grand theatre, and we view the ugly, backstage side of the curtain. The telephones onstage nostalgically brandish rotary dials.

Birdsall practically channels Welles. Brown gets laughs. The set works. The play drags on and on, and the actors make good vowel sounds.

Orson’s Shadow runs until Nov. 12 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St., call 816-531-PLAY ext. 10 or go online at for more information. The Unicorn’s next production, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, opens Dec. 1.

David Ollington can be contacted at


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