Orson’s Shadow, Chicago Center for the Performing Arts. Austin Pendleton’s fact-based but highly fictionalized backstage drama concerns the tumultuous 1960 London premiere of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, starring Laurence Olivier under the direction of Orson Welles. The project was marred by scandal–Olivier made the tormented decision to dump mentally ill wife Vivien Leigh for his Rhinoceros leading lady, Joan Plowright–and by a clash of wills that resulted in Olivier firing Welles. Shrewdly, Pendleton parallels Olivier’s humiliation of Welles with the rejection of Falstaff, whom Welles played in his film Chimes at Midnight, by Henry V, one of Olivier’s most famous Shakespearean roles.
Premiered two years ago at Steppenwolf’s garage space, Pendleton’s play has been taken on by commercial producers, who wisely have retained director David Cromer and his marvelous original cast: John Judd as Olivier, Lee Roy Rogers as Leigh, Sarah Wellington as Plowright, Jeff Still as Welles, and David Matthew Warren as critic Kenneth Tynan. But despite some rewrites, the script’s flaws are glaring: viewers are inundated with confusing info bites about the characters’ tangled professional and personal histories, and Pendleton’s erratic dramatic focus–veering from Tynan/Welles to Tynan/ Olivier to Welles/Olivier to Olivier/ Leigh/Plowright to Leigh/Welles– leaves the audience with no central relationship to care about. (The play begins with Tynan as narrator, then clumsily drops him midway through.) Orson’s Shadow should entertain theater buffs, but its appeal to a wider audience is