Orson's Shadow- Pilot Group Theatre

by Lucy Allen

There are few people who don’t know the names of Orson Welles and Lawrence Olivier.  Orson’s Shadow, currently playing at Theatre Passe Muraille, seeks to delve further into the minds of these titans, and while it certainly starts to scratch the surface, it doesn’t seem to go much further than what we’ve seen on screen.

The play takes place in London, 1960, when critic Kenneth Tynan (Christopher Stanton) brings Welles (Steve Ross) and Olivier (Paul Evans) together to work on a production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.  It’s during this time that Olivier’s marriage to Vivien Leigh (Camilla Scott) is falling apart and his subsequent affair with actress Joan Plowright (Janet Porter) is just blooming.  Needless to say, conflict ensues.

Biographical shows such as this one are always difficult to pull off.  There is the pressure to make sure you’re being faithful to the icons being represented,  but there comes a point where you must make the risky choice to take artistic license and make the characters your own as well. 

It’s a delicate and tricky balance, and unfortunately Orson’s Shadow tends to lean more towards imitation rather than interpretation.  I found myself wanting to get to know these people more, but ended up feeling like I was staring through a dusty window trying to get a glimpse of them.

Paul Evans’ Lawrence Olivier was probably the best example of this.  Certainly, Olivier was probably arrogant and pompous, but as with all human beings, there’s always more to someone than that.  Unfortunately, Evans never strays far from his one-note performance, and my show partner Amber especially ended up being more annoyed at a character that the writing clearly indicated we needed to pity at some points.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the show.  It has some has some highly comical scenes and I was sorry that the night I went the audience was pretty small and therefore shy.  While I didn’t bother hiding my laughter, it would have been nice to experience the show with a fully energized audience.  I also liked the use of Tynan as a narrator who often broke down the fourth wall to talk to the audience directly, although this was handled somewhat sloppily in the final scene.

Steve Ross as Orson Welles and Christopher Stanton as Kenneth Tynan were both convincing and complex with what they were given, and had a sincerity and chemistry that carried most of the show.  Ross’ speech in the second act especially had me on the edge of my seat.

In fact, one thing that Amber and I both agreed on was that it was a shame that the press release played up the relationship between Welles and Olivier, when the play clearly is more about the friendship between Tynan and Welles.  Or at least that was the one I cared about, although the exchanges between Orson Welles and Camilla Scott’s Vivien Leigh were also a delight to watch. 

Still, despite a couple of strong performances, a sharp and comedic tone and a wealth of source material, Orson’s Shadow doesn’t quite live up to its potential, showing us…well, shadows instead of people.

Orson’s Shadow is playing at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson Avenue) until December 12.
-Shows are Tues. to Sat. at 7:30 pm with a matinee on Sat. at 2pm.
-Tickets are $22.50 with PWYC on Sat matinees.
-Tickets can be purchased by calling 416-504-7529 or by visiting artsboxoffice.ca.