Encore Michigan

“Orson’s Shadow” is a must see at Planet Ant

Review November 27, 2015 Frank Anthony Polito

You may remember Austin Pendleton for his role as the reluctant assistant to the owner of a franchise of failing French-fried frog leg restaurants, played by Charles Durning, in the 1979 big screen film “The Muppet Movie.” This is how I first came to know of Pendleton’s work back when I was a kid. As an adult, I learned of Pendleton’s role as a director from my playwrighting teacher at Carnegie Mellon, Milan Stitt. Apparently it was Pendleton who brought Milan’s most famous play, “The Runner Stumbles,” to Broadway during his tenure as Artistic Director of the long-defunct Circle Rep.

orson's shadowWhat I didn’t realize is that Pendleton is also a playwright himself—and a terrific one at that. His play, Orson’s Shadow, is being given a fantastic production at Planet Ant Theatre, and I suggest that you totally check it out. But you’d better get your tickets ASAP. If the rest of the run is anything like opening night this past Thanksgiving Eve, there won’t be an empty seat left in the house once word gets out just how good it is.

Orson’s Shadow tells the behind-the-scene story of the time when Orson Welles took on the challenge of directing Sir Laurence Oliver and his soon-to-be bride Joan Plowright in a production of Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” in London’s West End in 1960. As one might imagine, the clashing of egos between Welles and Olivier is enough fodder to make for a compelling drama. Throw in Olivier’s fanatical actress wife, a chain-smoking theatre reviewer, and a stoic stagehand and the most serious of scenarios becomes a laugh-riot.

For this production, director Charles Reynolds has assembled a dream cast. As Ken Tynan, Dax Anderson fits perfectly the part of an ailing critic who has a humorous habit of directly addressing the audience. From his first solo moment on stage, we know we’re in good hands with Tynan as our guide, and Anderson assuming the persona. Joel Mitchell is an obvious casting choice as Welles. He may not be quite as hefty as his character complains of being, but Mitchell has the tempestuous “fat guy” shtick down. In his dealings with nemesis Olivier, he’s loud, crass and bombastic, precisely what we expect from a failed film director at 45. Sir Laurence, played by the dashing Jonathan Davidson, struts about, arms akimbo, taking himself—and his craft—sooo seriously as the narcissistic actor/director. As Ms. Plowright, Kelly Rossi’s performance as a woman in love with a man still in love with another woman is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Bryan Spangler’s stagehand Sean comes off as the kind of guy who, being an Irishman, spends much of his time drowning his sorrows at the nearest pub. But pay attention to how brightly Spangler’s face lights up when otherwise dour Sean meets the legendary star of stage and screen, Vivien Leigh. Finally, as Leigh, TM Rawlins combines the right amount of over-the top conceit with craziness in her portrayal of the fading starlet. Her telephone scene with hubby Olivier was among my personal favorites, a credit to their director. In what could have easily become a boring back-and-forth exchange of dialogue, Reynolds has crafted the play’s most theatrical moment. Even though they still hold the phones to their heads, Reynolds allows his actors to speak directly to each other, locking eyes and then looking away, drawing close to one another and then retreating to the opposite side of the stage once things become too tense.

Alas, the above descriptions don’t do the actors or the creative team of Orson’s Shadow justice. I haven’t even told you about Barbie Weisserman’s straight-out-of the-’60s costumes or the way John Jakary’s lighting design enriched that telephone scene. And what about the scene where Olivier and Plowright are rehearsing “Rhinoceros” with Welles, and I literally laughed out loud.

I could go on and on. But I won’t. I’ll just say… “Get on down to The Ant and see this awesome show!”

Week of 7/16/2018

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