'King Lear' opens at Antaeus Theatre

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Courtesy Antaeus Theatre

Shakespeare's "King Lear" runs through August 8 at the Antaeus Theatre in North Hollywood

Shakespeare’s tale of madness, tyranny, loyalty and love - as told in the story of King Lear - opens this week in North Hollywood. This is the 19th season for L.A.’s classical ensemble, Antaeus Theatre. But it’s the first time the company has staged a full Shakespearean production.

To commemorate the event, the theater reached out to its founding artistic director, Dakin Matthews. He’s one of the country’s foremost interpreters of the Bard. Antaeus also approached three-time Tony nominee, Harry Groener. Both actors will play Lear in rotating ensembles.

Matthews said that the surprising advantage to double casting is that it forced director Bart De Lorenzo to work with an ensemble mentality.

“We didn’t think of that," said Matthews. "We knew it was going to force him to go crazy. We knew that it would be extraordinarily hard for a director. We knew that there were some directors we could never entice to work with us, but what we didn’t realize was that it would achieve what we were hoping it would achieve for another reason, which is that the director had to be collaborative because it wasn’t a one-on-one relationship with the director, the actor and the role. There were six relationships – director, role, me; director, role, Harry. So it had to be a different director for Harry than it was for me.”

You might think that casting two Cordelias, two Edmunds, two Fools, and so on, would create a very competitive environment. Harry Groener bristles at the word:

“There’s a little bit of danger when you use the word ‘competition,’” said Groener.

For example, Groener believes that actors must surrender any feelings of ownership over their characters. Secondly, they must develop a spirit of cooperation by watching fellow actors perform “their” roles.

“Dakin was saying the other day sometimes you can’t see possibilities unless you’re standing outside the play," said Groener, "which you have the opportunity of doing in a double-casting situation, and you see something on stage that the actor can’t see because he’s up there doing it, and you say, ‘Oh, there’s a choice there,' and you let the other actor know that there’s that... we can add that color to it.”

So, two Lears – two takes.

“You go see Dakin in it, you’ll have that production," said Groener. "You go see and you have that production. It’s very different–"

"And the opposite works. It happened in rehearsal," said Matthews, "I did something, and then Harry did something, and Bart said to Harry, ‘You know, what you did in that scene was different than Dakin’s and I kind of prefer what Dakin did.’ And I said, ‘Oh really? Because I just watched it and I preferred Harry’s," Matthews said, laughing. "And so we reached a common ground on that one particular bit with what he did struck me as being much smarter than what I did.”

That’s how the two Lears found a way to do both to director De Lorenzo’s satisfaction. Jeanie Hackett is Antaeus Theatre’s artistic director.

“When this goes really, really well," said Hackett, "Dakin doesn’t want to be Harry and Harry doesn’t want to be Dakin because nobody can be Dakin and nobody can be Harry. They find more of who they are in the part by... having someone else do it, it gets more specific for who you are. So our successful doubles get very specific to themselves. They’re not ‘general’ Edmunds, they’re Seamus Dever's Edmunds and Daniel Bess’ Edmund, and it forces you to go down that path.”

Most Shakespeare lovers regard Lear as a tragedy, but Hackett believes the play also is funny. She picks up a theme familiar even to people who haven’t seen the play – that the father thinks his children are thankless idiots.

“And there’s humor in that," said Hackett. "Now, is there loss? Of course there is. And is loss something we all have to carry around with us all the time? Yes. And some people like to be reminded of that and some people don’t. I personally feel less lonely when I’m in a room where people are saying ‘Yeah, we carry loss around. ... And the way these guys play this role, it cracks your heart. It cracks your heart. You feel for the parent. You feel for the child. And there’s a sense of communion for the ambivalent feelings we have for the people we love.”

"King Lear" opens this week at Antaeus Theatre in North Hollywood. It continues through August 8.

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