When L.A.’s Classical Theatre Ensemble sets out to do its very first fully staged production of a William Shakespeare play, the result truly merits event status, especially when it is the Antaeus Company staging King Lear with not one His Majesty but two royal monarchs—Dakin Matthews and Harry Groener—and two entirely different casts to support them.

Antaeus’ custom of double casting allows its ensemble members to accept paying jobs in film and TV without ever jeopardizing the production they’re appearing in, and guarantees audiences first-rate, fully rehearsed performances no matter which evening or matinee they attend—in addition to giving them the opportunity to see different actors’ often very distinct takes on roles when making a return visit.

Matthews’ cast, the “Fools,” features such L.A. theater luminaries as Ramón de Ocampo, Seamus Dever, and Kirsten Porter, to name just three. Groener’s equally luminous cast, known as the “Madmen,” is the one reviewed here.

I won’t spend time synopsizing Lear’s plot, except to say that it could well have inspired sayings in the vein of “There’s nothing worse/more bitter/more disturbing/viler than an ungrateful child.” Those familiar with Lear’s twists and turns will need no reminding about the King and his three daughters (two evil, one good) and those for whom this production represents their first King Lear ever can find plenty of online summaries. What I would like to write about is the splendid ensemble of Madmen, beginning with Groener’s towering work as Lear.

There aren’t many performers who can star on Broadway in musical hits like Spamalot, Crazy For You, and Oklahoma! and play King Lear. Groener may well be the only one, and his performance as Shakespeare’s most epic monarch is truly monumental. As Lear gets madder and madder (in both senses of the word), Groener’s work here becomes truly breathtaking, and his is not the only performance to rave about.

Director Bart DeLorenzo, doing superb work as always, has surrounded Groener with what in other circumstances would be a matchless cast (though since this is Antaeus, my guess is that the “Fools” match the “Madmen” actor for actor).

Alegra Fulton (Goneril), Jen Dede (Regan), and Daniel Bess (Edmund) are each deliciously conniving as the evilest of Lear’s villains. On the considerably nicer side are Rebecca Mozo (Cordelia), Gregory Itzin (Kent), and Thomas Vincent Kelly (Duke Of Albany) giving solid support, not just to the King but to the production as well. JD Cullum (Fool) steals scenes right and left, as every Fool worth his salt ought to. Others in the all-around excellent cast include Kevin Daniels (Duke Of Cornwall), Brett Colbeth (King Of France), John Francis O’Brien (Duke Of Burgundy), Nick Cable (Oswald), Jeremy Shouldis (Knight), Renata Plecha (Gloucester’s Servant), and Bruce Green (Doctor). Finally, there are Robert Pine (Gloucester) and John Sloan (Edgar) doing smashing work apart and even more powerful, moving work together in their heart-wrenching Act Two scenes following Gloucester’s blinding by enemies of the King.

You won’t find a more gorgeously designed production around town than this King Lear. Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz’s stunning set, exquisitely lit by lighting designer Lap Chi Chu, suggests granite cliffs and/or castle walls, its look ever changing as it gets manipulated into diverse configurations during blackouts. John Zalewski’s sound design is one of his best, and that’s saying a lot, a spectacular blend of stirring, pulsating background music, peals of thunder, and assorted noises of battle. TJ Marchbank has choreographed some of the most exciting (and realistic) fights you’ll see on stage all year.

In a class by themselves are A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes, an ingenious mix of classic robes for the oldest characters, Victorian garb for the middle-agers, and contemporary gear for the youngest cast members, the result giving the show a universality not tied to any particular time period.

Jen Prince has designed the production’s many props, with A. Tara Shucart in charge of the show’s excellent hair and wig designs. Deirdre Murphy is production stage manager, assisted by Leia S. Crawford. King Lear is produced by Young Ji.

I have only gripe about this King Lear, and it’s probably not one that a true Shakespeare fanatic would share. It’s this: For theatergoers (like myself) for whom the Bard has become an acquired taste, a play whose evening performances let out around 11:25 is about a half hour longer than we’d like. (In the interest of full disclosure, I attended a 4:00 performance which ended at 7:25.) I must confess to having gotten a bit lost about halfway through a very long Act One. Fortunately, though, an absolutely bang-up Act Two kept me quite spellbound from start to finish.

I’m expecting this production to get raves regardless of which cast is being reviewed, so rest assured, no one will be getting second shrift by seeing Madmen instead of Fools, or vice versa. Never mind that at final blackout, just about the whole cast is lying dead on the floor, within seconds the audience will be on their feet cheering both victims and survivors.

The Antaeus Company, Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
June 27, 2010
Photos: Ed Krieger

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