Wilbur Edwin Henry plays Orson Welles, a god without a faithful flock.
Wilbur Edwin Henry plays Orson Welles, a god without a faithful flock.
John Everett

Soaring Egos

The magical land of great theater bubbles forth from the minds of titanic narcissists and gorgeous madwomen in Austin Pendleton's compelling Orson's Shadow. Now running on the Alley's Neuhaus Stage, the strange, funny play takes us back to the '60s, during the sunset years of such theatrical monarchs as Orson Welles (Wilbur Edwin Henry), Laurence Olivier (James Black) and Vivien Leigh (Elizabeth Heflin). Pendleton re-creates the fascinating rehearsals for Ionesco's Rhinoceros, in which stadium-size egos and beautifully broken hearts battle for a little bit of respect in a world that has all but forgotten them.

The play opens on famous theater critic Kenneth Tynan (Jeffrey Bean) persuading Welles to direct Rhinoceros and to feature Olivier in the starring role. While this first scene drags on too long, it does a powerful job of establishing the heartbreaking notion of forgotten theatrical deities playing on without an audience. Looking for Welles, Tynan wanders into an empty, dark theater. The genius petulantly refuses to appear, but then his unmistakable booming voice comes over a loudspeaker. The disembodied voice sounds completely godlike. It's the early '60s, and ironically, Welles is a god without a faithful flock. Any power he may have had in Hollywood is long gone, yet by any standard he remains a great director -- one who can't find funding for his projects. So he is persuaded by Tynan (one of his biggest fans) to do the project with Olivier.

Now Tynan has to persuade Olivier to do the project with Welles, and the Alley's production picks up speed once Black's Olivier walks on stage. Though Black, with his husky, rough-hewed good looks, bears little resemblance to Olivier, he looks startlingly like the famous actor from the moment he walks on stage. Wearing a pair of black horn-rims and a starched dark suit, Black is a flurry of frenetic, self-absorbed energy. He captures Olivier' grace and unique body rhythm, speaking with almost breathless condescension; with his hands ruffling about before him, he holds his back straight, posing in a constant state of self-awareness. This is one of Black's best performances at the Alley in quite some time, and it is reason enough to see this production.


Orson's Shadow

Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

Through April 30. $41-$46.

Another good reason: the opportunity to watch the rehearsals within the play. As directed by David Cromer, these delicious scenes capture the creative work that goes on behind the lights and costumes of any production. Even better, they make that work interesting, especially to anyone who loves the theater. Black's Olivier paces the rehearsal area, trying to understand the play, trying to understand his character, and Welles is right there with him. The great director and his equally fine actor battle for power, for their own ideas, for respect. There is some very funny business involving a handkerchief and some very angry stuff involving a flying table.

Watching this war of words are Olivier's lover and co-star Joan Plowright (played by a fetchingly sane Elizabeth Bunch) and Tynan, who is driven to stuttering fury by his director's and star's clashing egos. Still, the work goes on -- until Olivier gets a call from his manic wife, Vivien Leigh. She figures out that her husband is not where he says he is and drives in to see him, suspicious and fearful and outrageously beautiful.

Heflin's Leigh is supremely fetching, even if she has a touch of "the mania" about her. As she slides effortlessly toward the pretty edge of sanity, she flirts, sashays and speaks with warm, delirious grace. And when she slips off that edge, she explodes with an ugliness that only those who have lost their minds can understand. Screeching at the top of her lungs, she flails about to the speechless horror of those around her. Only her husband, who desperately wants to get away from her, can soothe the beast raging inside her. Olivier rushes in to capture her in his aging arms, where he calms her like one would an animal.

There is something highly romantic in Pendleton's curious story about what happens to creative geniuses as they grow older. But because it is based on true events, the romance moves through the tale with an abiding melancholy. This production will linger in the hearts of those who revere artists and all they go through to make our lives richer.


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