ORSON'S SHADOW Gremlin Theatre; at the Loading Dock Theater through March 9 651.228.7008
By 1960, Orson Welles had burned his bridges in Hollywood and was playing Falstaff before light crowds in Dublin. In walked his pal, British theater critic Kenneth Tynan, with an idea: that Welles direct Laurence Olivier in a production of Ionesco's absurdist Rhinoceros at London's Royal Court Theatre. Tynan's suggestion was a bid at salvaging Welles's flagging fortunes, but of course the theater lover inside him couldn't help but wonder what result would come from pairing two titans of the stage who both possessed colossal egos to match their prowess. Austin Pendleton's script serviceably moves us through the wheedling machinations of Tynan (John Middleton) getting first Welles (Garry Geiken) on board and then Olivier (Alan Sorenson). Then in the second act it takes us to a notably disastrous rehearsal. In the early going there's cause to fear that the show will confine itself to insider stuff about the acting business and this particular historic moment, but Matt Sciple's confident direction keeps the emphasis on the characters and their very real fears and contradictions. It helps that Sciple is holding aces in the form of this cast, with Geiken playing Welles as brilliant but self-thwarting, wincing from pain of the spirit and from his rapidly deteriorating body. Sorenson is utterly compelling, his Olivier imperious and cocky though riddled with insecurity (when his lover Joan Plowright tells him he's the sexiest man in the world, he absorbs the sentiment with pleasure, then retorts, "Sexier than Brando?") and wracked by guilt and worry over his marriage to the mentally unstable Vivien Leigh (Carolyn Pool, acting as though she just stepped out of a Tennessee Williams production, which is meant as a compliment). There's tons of stuff here about Olivier's often-hidebound artistry, not to mention Welles's paranoid grudges and the agonizing weight of Citizen Kane on his every move. A taut pace and impassioned yet precise performances keep this from the territory of a history lesson, though, and squarely in the realm of satisfying and moving drama. At the end, Welles is told of the fate that awaits him, and Geiken's stunned reaction is one of the more chilling moments in recent memory.