Jeff Still and John Judd in Orson's Shadow(Photo © Colin D. Young)
Jeff Still and John Judd in Orson's Shadow
(Photo © Colin D. Young)
As Orson's Shadow begins, a man has arrived in a darkened Dublin theater. He's looking for Orson Welles. Soon, a disembodied voice comes out of the shadows to respond, sounding remarkably like the voice of Orson Welles. It's a brilliant bit of stagecraft that brands the unseen actor as Welles and helps us to readily accept him as the great actor/director when he finally appears, even though he doesn't look anything like him. Director David Cromer and lighting designer Tyler Micoleau have successfully conspired to draw us into the mood of the play.

The actor in question, Jeff Still, has captured Welles' arrogance mixed with charm and his tempestuous, self-destructive nature. Through the dignity and intelligence of Austin Pendleton's remarkable script, Still brings to life a man overflowing with the contradictions that come from being part genius and part imperfect human being. It's an extraordinary portrait, made all the more entrancing by the conflict that ensues between Welles and Laurence Olivier (John Judd), two of the 20th century's great theatrical titans.

Pendleton's sympathies are entirely with Welles in this battle between erratic genius and strong technique. Welles has allies, as well: Joan Plowright (Susan Bennett), Kenneth Tynan (Tracy Letts), and, to a lesser degree, Vivien Leigh (Lee Roy Rogers) try to come to his aid. He needs all the help he can get because in 1960, when the play takes place, Welles had nothing except his wits, while Olivier had just completed yet another triumph in The Entertainer. The play details with humor, poignancy, and high drama Welles' attempt to direct Olivier and Plowright in Ionesco's Rhinoceros at the Royal Court Theatre in London.

You're going to ask if this really happened. We don't know, but it doesn't matter. All of the truth is in the play -- and so is all the fun. Pop culture references are everywhere, from comments about Citizen Kane to a keener understanding of Welles' last great success: Chimes at Midnight, his movie about Falstaff. A great many people were in Orson's shadow, not the least of whom was Orson Welles himself.

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Lords of the Dance

If Thom Pain is this year's best play with words, then Play Without Words is this year's best play without words. Matthew Bourne's awe-inspiring adaptation of Joseph Losey's film The Servant, done entirely in dance and movement to music, also offers visually exciting set design by Lez Brotherston and a cast of superb dancers/actors. After all, they co-choreographed the play with Bourne, who devised and directed it.

A meticulously detailed series of dance routines during which a battle between servants and their masters takes place, this show is the intellectual answer to Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out. Don't misunderstand; the two dance musicals have little in common with each other except their storytelling through movement, but Play Without Words is a truly sophisticated piece of work that tells its tale with subtlety and style. It plays at BAM only through April 3.

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Freshly Faded at Latino Playwrights Festival

The Latino Playwrights Festival, also known as Songs from Coconut Hill, just concluded its fourth season. This downtown contributor to the multicultural life of the city is emerging as a genuine grassroots success story. Full houses and quality plays can do that.

We caught one of the plays in the two-week long festival, Robert Dominguez's Faded. It's a provocative story that combines an inside look at tabloid journalism with a rich twist to the tale of Marilyn Monroe and President John F. Kennedy. (That got your interest, didn't it? Well, that's the point!) If the first act of Faded borders on the pedestrian, the second act has some sharp twists and turns. The play's greatest attributes are credible, crackling dialogue and clearly defined characters. In short: Dominguez can write, and the Latino Playwrights Festival can (and does) introduce new talent to the theater world.

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No Blarney at Helen's Hideaway Room

Speaking of ethnic festivals, cabaret is wisely seeing the value in such things. The Hideaway Room at Helen's has just concluded its first annual Irish Music Festival, wisely building it around St. Patrick's Day. The series featured three different specialty cabaret acts that led up to the holiday and finished just this past weekend.

For us, the highlight was Colm Reilly's show, which featured D.J. Bradley's fresh arrangements of familiar songs and Reilly's powerful tenor interpretations of same. The program was a thoughtful mix of uptempo tunes, heartbreaking ballads, and drinking songs. Reilly's ability to charm us and to sing the daylights out of "Danny Boy" says it all. The best way to describe his patter is "friendly."

What made the show work so well was its keen understanding of what it means to be Irish-American. There was no sense of Reilly trying to connect to an Irish heritage of generations past; rather, this was a celebration of being Irish right here and now in New York City. As a result, it was refreshing and immediately accessible. For instance, Reilly's set-up for "The Town I Love So Well" turned that ballad into a profound 9/11 song, this despite the fact that it's an Irish song about another subject entirely. Other highlights abounded: "Only Our Rivers," "Fiddlers Green," and even the jaunty "The Reilly Family Tree" were memorable moments in a show that was among the most entertaining we've seen so far this year.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegels@theatermania.com.]