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The critic and the Shadow

Playwright Austin Pendleton's historical drama opens the season at Deep Dish

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Orson's Shadow playwright Austin Pendleton will be at Deep Dish Theater on Sept. 7. - PHOTO COURTESY OF KERIN-GOLDBERG ASSOCIATES
  • Photo courtesy of Kerin-Goldberg Associates
  • Orson's Shadow playwright Austin Pendleton will be at Deep Dish Theater on Sept. 7.

Don't let the title of Deep Dish Theater's season opener throw you. The millionaire playboy and spectral vigilante of old-time radio serials is nowhere to be found in Orson's Shadow. But even if the fictive character of Lamont Cranston doesn't make an appearance, this biographical backstage drama about a clash between Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier still manages to get at some of the evil that lurks in the hearts of men--or artists, at any rate.

The time is 1960. At the behest of influential critic Kenneth Tynan, Olivier hires Welles to direct him in a London stage production of Rhinoceros, a political metaphor play by absurdist Eugene Ionesco. It's an unlikely professional association, one that's exacerbated by events just off-stage.

Olivier, who is to perform Rhinoceros with his current paramour, Joan Plowright, has to come to a decision about his marriage with the unstable Vivien Leigh. Meanwhile, Welles is obsessed above all with how he's going to finish filming Chimes at Midnight after being banished from Hollywood.

Then there's the question of manners, since Tynan, Olivier and Welles by now have all managed to say some very unkind things about each other's work in print.

Aside from the recorded fact that Welles was no longer involved in the production of Rhinoceros by opening night, there's almost no record of what went on during the initial meetings and rehearsals. Veteran stage and screen actor, director and playwright Austin Pendleton has taken historical evidence and the memoirs and biographies of the show's principals to craft a speculative work in the mode similar to that of Russell Lees' Nixon's Nixon.

References to that play seem even more appropriate here since Derrick Ivey, who astounded us as Nixon in the 2005 production at Manbites Dog Theater, will attempt to bring the same verisimilitude to the forbidding role of Orson Welles. No easier is the work of Mark Filiaci, who plays Olivier, or Jeri Lynn Schulke as Olivier's wife, Vivien Leigh. Katja Hill as Joan Plowright, Jeffrey Detwiler as Kenneth Tynan and newcomer Hampton Rowe round out an exceptional cast.

Significantly upping the ante for these actors, the playwright himself will attend a benefit performance on Thursday, Sept. 7. Visit www.deepdishtheater.org for more information.

Pendleton is currently appearing with Meryl Streep in Tony Kushner's new adaptation of Mother Courage in New York's Central Park. We spoke with him by phone last week.

Independent: After productions at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and elsewhere, Orson's Shadow had a great run last year: nine months off-Broadway, and nominations for several awards. What brings you to North Carolina now for this work?

Pendleton: First of all, I've known Paul [Frellick, Deep Dish Theater's artistic director] for years, and I like his work. I know he's wanted to get the rights to this for a long time, and I've wanted to go down and see his theater ever since he began it. I also like to see productions of the plays I've written--I mean, I don't go to absolutely every one of them, but if it's comparatively easy to get to, and in this case a director whose work I know, it's exciting to go.

I'm also interested in the moment that you knew you wanted to write about this. What sparked this script?

Judith Auberjonois had the idea at the core, and she wanted me to write it specifically for her husband, René, and for their friend, Alfred Molina. I don't tend to write plays about people who are somewhat recent. And I've always resisted historical plays like this when I see them.

I decided to write the play when I realized from the research that Olivier finally made the decision to break with Vivien Leigh during the rehearsals for Rhinoceros. Then I also found that Orson had had this very close relationship with her; they'd meant a lot to each other, though it wasn't exactly a romantic pull.

Before that, I was afraid it would become just a turf war: They'd be just a couple of egomaniacs who want control of each other. When I got her into the picture they both became more vulnerable--particularly Olivier.

And through that I got to the idea that, in our profession certainly, there are people who will do anything to survive, and people who will devote a certain amount of energy to self-destruct. These two kinds of people, they're naturally threatening and antagonistic to each other--but they're also almost obsessively fascinating to each other as well. At that point I thought, "I'll actually try to write this thing."

As it was it took three years to get even three-quarters of a draft. It wasn't until much further that I thought of putting Kenneth Tynan into it. You needed an intelligent person of the time, through which the audience could feel how important these two men were--so they didn't just wind up telling each other how important they were.

In one place you have Tynan say, "[O]f course no one took really seriously a word I wrote. You see, I am a critic. What is a critic? A critic is no one." But really, in this play, everyone literally is a critic. On some level, I think that's what the play's about--criticism. Tynan, Welles, Olivier are always being very critical with each other.

That's interesting.

I've never met a good artist who wasn't on some level a good critic as well. You have to be: in choosing who you work with, in selecting from all the possibilities to the choices you put on stage--determining what works and what doesn't in each moment--this is critical work. In some arts it's almost completely self-critical, but in theater it's not.

I've lived through that many, many times, and I hadn't thought of the process in this play exactly like this, but in the way you just described it, I think it's absolutely true. And the more significant the artist, the better the artist, the truer it is.

We sense that these characters are being extremely careful at times with their criticisms because they know this is operation on live tissue with no anesthetic. At other times, they're flinging words like knives and that knowledge of just how hypersensitive the other is gives them a bit more pleasure as they twist the knife.

But that kind of incessant hyperbole is in a way a self-protective device. As long as they maintain that kind of dialogue with each other, they can't really wound each other. The more they throw that stuff around at each other, they're protecting themselves. When they actually want to get through, they're a lot more direct.

I've always had a funny
personal relationship with critics--to the degree that I've had them. I've made friends sometimes with critics who have been the harshest to me. Because I'm always surprised--a critic can write something horrible about you, and do it repeatedly. Then you get to know them and they're very respectful of you, and it begins to dawn on you that even the harshest criticism is in itself an act of respect. So that's in the play too.

It's interesting both Olivier and Welles stop Tynan at different points when he's praising them.

I think people like that are threatened by praise, because they don't feel they're going to be able to live up to it. I think that's a constant anxiety with people like that.

Why?

The height of one's powers is produced by an intense amount of vulnerability. Therefore it's a time that has a great deal of instability to it. The height also implies a fall. It's a very dramatic time--and frightening.

Orson's Shadow opens Aug. 24 at Deep Dish Theater.

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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