Review: Legendary Actors Clash In WHAT's 'Orson's Shadow'

By: Ellen Petry Whalen

Topics: Local Theater

Christopher “Chiz” Chisholm, John Feltch and Kelsey Torstviet in “Orson’s Shadow” at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. MICHAEL AND SUZ KARCHMER PHOTO

To say Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater’s “Orson’s Shadow” is well acted is an understatement. The show’s noteworthy actors have the monumental task of convincingly portraying some theatrical greats from the stage and silver screen, which they deftly achieve, creating an absolute tour de force.

WHAT’s choice of “Orson’s Shadow” was very purposeful, as the drama revolves around putting on the absurdist drama “Rhinoceros,” which is currently running in repertory. Written by American actor, theater director and playwright Austin Pendleton, “Orson’s Shadow” was first performed in 2000.

The heart of the play is about aging theatrical egos and navigating the inevitable downward slide of the actors’ careers. The drama, based on real events, is set behind the scenes of two London theaters in 1960. Orson Welles is talked into directing Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright in “Rhinoceros” by his friend and New Yorker critic Kenneth Tynan, and tensions are mounting.

Christopher “Chiz” Chisholm magnificently plays Orson, who doesn’t want his legacy to be defined only by his earliest works, namely “Citizen Kane” and “War of the Worlds.” Orson also doesn’t trust Olivier whom he claims destroyed his career in 1948. Chisholm appears to embody Orson’s spirit, as he projects the famed director’s larger-than-life persona and comparatively brash American ways.

As the knighted Laurence Olivier, John Feltch is wonderfully refined and controlled in that highbrow British way. Having performed in many historical dramas, the celebrated actor is trying to maintain his relevance in the modern world—which is why Laurence has accepted a role in the avant-garde “Rhinoceros,” even though neither he nor Orson care for the play.

The British critic Kenneth Tynan is the connection between the two great men, and he is also the narrator of the story who breaks through the fourth wall to invite the audience into the intimate scenes. Philip Hays shows the critic’s tender side, even though he is known for scalding reviews.

The youngest of the actors, with her career still on an upward trajectory, Joan Plowright is the voice of reason, even as she is having an affair with Laurence. Kelsey Torstveit portrays her with an unflappable nature, staying centered during the heated dialogues.

As the current wife of Laurence, Vivien Leigh is also part of the story. Abigail Rose Solomon portrays her with a controlled poise, veiling her delicate state of mind. With her wonderfully deliberate voice, she pronounces “Larry” with a lilting and elongated tone.

Orson’s assistant, Sean, is played by Ryan Sheehan with a fine Irish accent. Through his character’s naiveté, the playwright is able to give some background on the actors’ film careers, for some of the younger members in the audience.

Brad Dalton’s direction helps the cast to transform into the legendary actors, masterfully balancing their vulnerabilities with their larger-than-life personalities.

Grace Oberhofer’s sound design, which uses film scores like “Gone with the Wind,” reminds the audience of the emotional connections they have with the famous films and, in turn, their connection to the actors who starred in them. Carol Sherry’s perfectly tailored costumes, underscores the actors’ polished personas that the film studios projected to the public.

WHAT’s highly captivating “Orson’s Shadow” takes an intimate look at a pivotal time in these idolized actors’ lives—highlighting their struggles to maintain their relevance in a changing world while being overshadowed by their legendary works.

Of special note: with “Orson’s Shadow” running in repertory with “Rhinoceros,” check WHAT’s website for the schedule.


“Orson’s Shadow”
At Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater
Through Sept. 29
Information and reservations: 508-349-9428