Attention Bard-Hards! The Antaeus Company will be lending you its Lears this summer. LA’s Classical Theater Ensemble christens its fifth “ClassicsFest” with its first full production of a Shakespeare play in its 19-year history. Antaeus’ founding artistic director Dakin Matthews along with founding member as well as three-time Tony Award nominee and Buffy the Vampire Slayer alum, Harry Groener, share the title role in King Lear. This doubling applies to other cast members, as well, in order to accommodate shooting schedules for television and film work, a common practice within the Antaeus community.
Matthews and Groener, individually lead a double cast of “Fools” and “Madmen” (taken from the Fool’s line in Act 3) on alternate nights in front of a 49-seat audience, nestled inside a pocket of North Hollywood’s Deaf West Theatre. This nook serves as Antaeus’ artistic asylum for play readings, workshops, rehearsals and social gatherings, served up with wine in an annexed library with intimations of a possible secret compartment housed behind a bookshelf somewhere in the space.
Director Bart DeLorenzo wields a resume that spans over 15 years, incorporating his role as founding artistic director of LA indie theater darling, the Evidence Room. On this stage, DeLorenzo helms a ship of 38 actors and 11 crewmembers, with two veterans sharing a crown. The audience is filled with industry pros, theater buffs, devout members of the Antaeus family, and even Annette Bening. No pressure Bart.
Groener leads the “Madmen” cast, which is Hollywood production-ready with a scrumptious roundup of leading men and wily actresses. They’re as striking as any Shakespeare for the teenage soul attempt of the last 15 years, but most satisfying is that this group can look and act the part in a beautiful amalgam of great talents.
At the play’s commencement, the audience is cloaked in darkness, chilled into silence by a beating battle drum before a dropped spotlight illuminates a handsome pair of brothers, Edmund (Daniel Bess) and Edgar (John Sloan), in the midst of a playful joust. (Team Edmund. I have a sudden fondness for bastards.)
J.D Cullum is the endearing and all seeing Fool; veteran television actor Robert Pine is the penitent Gloucester and 24 regular Gregory Itzin is Kent, tried and true. It’s Kent’s impassioned lines: “See better Lear!” that are not only pleas to the faltering monarch but a call to the audience. With her beseeching eyes and pretty dimples, Rebecca Mozo as Cordelia appears to be a daughter parenting her own father. This is exactly what the cast wills of you. ‘Seeing’ is an overarching theme in Lear and as easy on the eyes as this cast happens to be, the feelings they evoke are infinitely more attractive. Groener plays Lear like there’s a ticking time bomb strapped under his regal robes. There’s an inward momentum that drives his quirks and mannerisms: a crawling hand, an uncomfortable smile, marbled eyes, and blubbering whimpers. You can’t look away and don’t want to look at anything else.
In a parallel universe, Matthews reigns over the “Fools” cast in what feels like a totally different production of Lear. Same sets, same dry-cleaned costumes, lights and sound, but the weather vane swiftly whishes to point in another direction. If Groener is the deafening calm before the storm, then Dakin Matthews’ Lear is the mighty and unforgiving tempest. Kirsten Potter and Francia DiMase are catfight-ready as Goneril and Regan; Morlan Higgins’ Kent is as loyal as a Lab, and Norman Snow’s hardened Gloucester is quite pitiable. Stephen Caffrey as the Fool is cuddly and lispy, while a brotherly bond between Edgar (Ramon De Ocampo) and Edmund (Seamus Dever) is practically nonexistent. This cast is uncomfortable to watch, albeit in the best way possible. There’s a disconnect across the board which makes the fault lines run deep and that much more disturbing. You don’t need “glass eyes” to see this cast clearly; their flaws are shamelessly on display.
Matthews follows a predestined roadmap to madness as he hobbles across a cartographically etched stage while making calculated use of every prop in his way. A sword; a man at which to swing; a map of England to kick; a daughter to break, and a crown to shuck serve as this king’s toys: beloved one day, banished the next. He knows the part, because he’s made it a life’s work. There’s no question Dakin Matthews is likely to have crossed DNA with Shakespeare at some point in his career. There is no stage that’s a stranger to him. He’s the papa bear to nearly all the suckling actors in this town. A Drama Desk Award winner, an Emeritus Professor of English, director, producer, Shakespeare scholar. Play a game of Six Degrees of Separation with Dakin Matthews and you’ll end up with a better connection than the whole of the Verizon community trying to get at Kevin Bacon. Here’s why:
Nine years ago I sat in my sophomore English class listening to The Tempest being butchered off the page at the hands of a drowsy student when a man with a white beard suddenly busted into the room. His hands carried a GIANT chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. Any and all classroom interruptions were welcome in high school, so attention was instantly diverted to this visitor with the warm smile and aforementioned GIANT chocolate cake. Our English teacher introduced this man as her husband, Dakin. Great, but do we get cake? What happened next is what makes Dakin Matthews a real treasure. He told us it was Shakespeare’s birthday (April 23), and thought it would be a grand idea to have a birthday party in the Bard’s honor—candle and all. So on that spring afternoon nine years ago, Period Two English and Dakin Matthews sang “Happy Birthday” to William Shakespeare. True story.
Are two Lears better than one? Groener works you over so hard it starts to hurt everywhere. He exceeds all expectation as Lear and is still as gracious as ever to the dorky Buffy fan who introduced herself to him at the after party. (I keep dating myself. So what.) On the other hand, Matthews is all aplomb and legend. Nothing can touch him, and he throws great birthday parties. Suffice it to say, you can definitely have your cake and eat it too with Antaeus’ latest slice of heaven.