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Deep Dish Theater Company: Playwright Austin Pendleton Creates His Own View of Historical Hijinks in Orson's Shadow

August 25, 2006 - Chapel Hill, NC:


Deep Dish Theater Company opens its 2006-07 season with a new play by Austin Pendleton, Orson’s Shadow, the title character being, of course, Orson Welles. The play is a fictional accounting of how events progressed when Welles collaborated, in 1960, as director on a production starring Lawrence Olivier, the ill-fated English premiere of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. Using a scant six actors and only a blank stage for a set, Pendleton creates a cauldron in which two titans clash, both professionally and emotionally.

Cleverly staging the play in a pair of theaters works not only well for set design but also in laying out the locale of these events, for Welles and Olivier were both in Britain at the time. Welles, however, was suffering from lack of audiences in his own rendition of the Bard’s Henry V (which he titled Chimes at Midnight) in a tiny theater in Dublin,whereas Olivier was still getting his own theater company off the ground at the Royal Court Theatre in London’s West End. Olivier was, at the time, casting about for a director for the English premiere of Romanian-born French dramatist Eugène Ionesco’s metaphor on fascism, Rhinoceros. Enter here a Briton who is temporarily assigned to The New Yorker magazine as theater critic, Kenneth Tynan. Tynan, long a friend of Orson Welles, has traveled to Dublin to speak with Welles about a collaboration. Tynan, you see, is trying to get himself hired by Olivier in the new theater, and figures he has a stroke of genius in suggesting, with the director’s approval, of course, that Welles be the man for the job. It is far better, Ken (Jeffrey Scott Detwiler) rationalizes, than Orson’s (Derrick Ivey) current fate.

Viewing both of Orson’s fiascos in this work is the stage manager for both Chimes at Midnight and Rhinoceros, Sean (Hampton Rowe). Also intimately involved in the production is Miss Joan Plowright (Katja Hill), the latest fling and prior leading lady of Lawrence Olivier, whom everyone calls “Larry” (Mark Filiaci). Sweeping in and out of the play in her own inimitable fashion is Olivier’s wife at the time, Vivien Leigh (Jeri Lynn Schulke). Under artistic director Paul Frellick’s direction, the cast delivers a stunning and often hilarious one-two punch using spectacular characterization and an ensemble’s attention to detail.

Of the lot, most viewers will know only those characters of Welles, Leigh, and Olivier; but it is noted in the script that, of all six characters, only Sean is an unknown. Even the staging of Ionesco’s 1959 Theatre of the Absurd masterpiece about the rise of Nazism in pre-World War II Germany is a known fact. That Pendleton plays fast and loose with the facts beyond that point seems immaterial. We become engrossed in Deep Dish’s production from the very first line, spoken as it should be by Ken, whose idea brings these two tottering giants together. Emotions and celestial bodies collide as this pair of colossi storm away at each other during rehearsal.

As the show’s title character, Derrick Ivey shows his own monstrous talent in portraying not just the characterization of The Man, but also the very image of him physically. Ivey has become a chameleon, able to change his character and his appearance to fit the role, as he has proven before in Manbites Dog Theater’s Nixon’s Nixon. Matching him eccentrically if not verbally is the much less thunderous Olivier, as Mark Filiaci returns to the Triangle after a lengthy stretch of regional work to recreate the other giant of this work.

Whirling about them like planets around dual suns are Joan Plowright, amazingly and affectionately played by Deep Dish mainstay Katja Hill; Vivien Leigh, deep in madness and illness and oblivious to the ramifications of both, played by Jeri Lynn Schulke; the critic-wannabe-theatrical-advisor, Ken, a chain-smoking, stuttering, dazzling portrayal by Jeffrey Scott Detwiler; and the ubiquitous Sean, Irish as a Leprechaun and ultimately cowed by the presence of such greatness, played by Hampton Rowe.

Out in front of the season premieres and with a fun and fanciful flight of a show, Deep Dish presents this historical comedy with a flair that the company has become known for. This is a clever, witty and engrossing script that snaps up our attention and refuses to release us until the lights dim, focusing all playwright Austin Pendleton’s knowledge and history as an actor, director, and author on this pair of media giants. Both of them, for different reasons, on the last of their creative legs, their egos and eccentricities clash, and we are the happier for it.

Deep Dish Theater Company presents Orson’s Shadow Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 24-26, Aug. 31-Sept. 2 and Sept. 7-9 and 14-16, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 3 and 10, at 3 p.m.; and Wednesday, Sept. 13, at 7:30 p.m. in the space beside Branching Out at the Dillard’s end of University Mall, at the intersection of Estes Drive and U.S. 15-501, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $16 ($12 students and $14 seniors), except $7 “Cheap Dish Night”Aug. 31st. 919/968-1515 or via etix at the presenter's site. Note 1: There will be a post-play discussion following the show’s Sept. 3rd performance. Note 2: The Sept. 7th show will be a benefit performance with playwright Austin Pendleton in attendance. Deep Dish Theater Company: http://www.deepdishtheater.org/current.htm. Orson's Shadow: http://www.orsontheplay.com/ [inactive 1/07]. Internet Movie Database (Orson Welles bio): http://imdb.com/name/nm0000080/. The Estate of Orson Welles: http://www.bway.net/~nipper/home.html.