Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

It's Good to be King

July 06, 2010

Dakin Matthews and Rebecca Mozo
Photo: Ed Krieger/Antaeus 2010

While King Lear is not typically thrown in with Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, it seems to me it should be. Despite some great language and some of the playwright’s most powerful scenes, the play is almost never completely satisfying. First, one must accept the outlandish matter of dividing the kingdom up before Lear dies. Then there is the sheer unlikability of both Lear and his daughters. All of the female roles are thankless and so easily turn shrill and cartoonish. King Lear hardly seems more accessible to a modern audience than say Measure for Measure does. And yet, the play persists in the forefront of Shakespeare’s dramas and is popularly revived with ease nearly everywhere.

L.A. is no exception to this rule where Lear is receiving a detailed and thoughtful production from the Antaeus Company in the company’s first-ever full staging of any Shakespeare play in its nearly twenty year history. King Lear should be right up the alley of Antaeus, which has demonstrated a particular adeptness in working on ensemble pieces with large casts. (I'm thinking here of the superb Pera Palas they did at Boston Court a few years ago.) Their working process often calls for years of readings and workshops before a piece reaches a final full production allowing the group’s community of artists to fully explore the ins and outs of various texts. This summer the troupe has set up shop at the Deaf West Theater in North Hollywood where in addition to King Lear the ensemble is presenting numerous workshops and weekly readings of dozens of plays as part of “Classicsfest 2010,” allowing audiences to observe some of this working process. Their fully-staged performances, as with King Lear, are typically double cast allowing alternate groups to be seen on consecutive nights.

Antaeus’ King Lear, directed by Bart DeLorenzo, shows the hallmarks of this long gestation process with excellent chemistry on stage and a surprisingly clear delivery. It’s solidly acted and assertive in highlighting the comic elements in the script. In the cast that I saw last weekend, this awareness of Lear’s own humor stemmed largely from the performance of Dakin Matthews in the title role. No stranger to comic and larger-than-life characters, Matthews’ Lear retains some of his comic perspective even as his sanity slips away. It’s a smart performance and the rest of the cast is solid. There are some problems, however, and they stem largely from a bit of over-exuberance with the scenic design of the show. The minimal modern dress staging becomes increasingly labored by the end with Edgar and Edmond fighting each other in the final Act while donning red and black kafiyas and holding either end of a red rope during their battle. It’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t even fly on TV today, but here it is. There are also some grizzly extrapolations of the plot here and there as well, but nothing that basically alters the text in any significant way. It’s a good show and a good chance to catch one of L.A.’s better local theater companies between now and August.


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