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Caught Up in 'Shadow' Traffic

May 3, 2007 By:
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Joan Plowright (Rachel Botchan) and Laurence Olivier (Brent Harris)

The shadow Orson Welles cast during a prolific and profligate lifestyle had less to do with his gargantuan girth than the net he used to nab some of the world's best talent to take part in his evocative and echtian productions.

Caught in that shroud -- and the shrapnel stitched inside -- were Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright, co-stars -- and co-habitats off-stage -- of Welles' attempt to introduce Ionesco's "The Rhinoceros" to the American stage 47 years ago.

The steamy stampede that was the stars' affair -- with Olivier's frail wife, Vivian Leigh, laying down her own ground rules as the trampled-on part of the troika -- was often more dramatic than the action on stage, giving the title character of "Rhinoceros" the least rambunctious role in the show.

And if Austin Pendleton's "Orson's Shadow," beginning a monthlong run this week in a Philadelphia Theatre Company production at Plays & Players Theatre in Center City, speaks the backstage language of theater at its most tempestuous, who knew it would do so with a Yiddish accent?

Not that Rachel Botchan, who plays Plowright, has one here. But certainly, her many years as a seasoned performer with the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre has her reflecting and inflecting her part with the experience that comes from answering a question with a question.

And Laurence Olivier (Brent Harris) has a lot to answer for.

"Yiddish theater is very classical, with a heightened reality and love of language, with roots in Stanislavsky and method acting," relates Botchan of traits that cross over into the theater shaped by Welles' ways.

But the Folksbiene's shadow wasn't nearly as extensive as Orson's as Botchan -- "I spent three seasons with them and still have ties to the theater" -- "went back and forth" between stages of her life, which also included much regional work, as well as performances with the acclaimed off-Broadway Pearl Theatre Company

On the other hand ... "Whenever you delve into a tradition" -- as the Folksbiene afforded her the opportunity -- "it enriches you in other areas. When you perform in another language, it's very transformative; it helps your acting."

No help needed with this performance; Botchan plows right into Plowright with the verve and nerve characteristic of the legendary actress herself.

"She represented the modern theater at the time," says Botchan of her achieving alter ego, "and was open to exploring anything to help make her acting the best it could be."

Botchan also senses that Plowright's sense of humor helped add a comic touch to the touching performances she gave over the years. And "Shadow" traffics in that wit and wisdom.

"She's a delightful personality," says the actress, "surrounded by all these neurotic people. She seems to have a center that is very refreshing; people seemed to love her."

Love the woman, love the part, attests Botchan, who wonders herself what all those caught up in "Orson's Shadow" would have thought of Yiddish theater as competition.

"I wonder how much they even knew about it," she laughs.

But Botchan knew it backwards and Forward. Tomashefsky's shadow?

Well, not so dark, not so deep: "Actually," she says impishly, "I didn't know Yiddish all that well. I learned a little from my grandmother and then studied it."

And she has since turned into a study of multicultural accomplishment.

No carping, no complaints; no whine before her time to get up on stage. Just a sense of appreciation for her newly added character, whose "wit and humor I hope to take away with me." 

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