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Theatre Review: Unexpected Humor in this King Lear

Lear (Fools)_6.jpg
Dakin Matthews and Rebecca Mozo in King Lear. | Photo: Ed Krieger
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--by Terry Morgan for LAist

King Lear, Shakespeare’s play about an old, unfortunately unwise monarch who learns to value the worthwhile people in his life too late, is generally performed as a simple tragedy, squeezing pathos from the disconcerting velocity of the high being brought low. There’s nothing wrong with that approach—it works and has worked for centuries—but the new production by the Antaeus Company offers something different and equally compelling. Director Bart DeLorenzo and an expert cast (this production has two separate casts that perform alternately—this review only covers one of them) have done a deep reading of the text and the result is an intellectually engaging show that revels in the beauty and nuance of Shakespeare’s language and finds a plethora of unexpected humor. King Lear is funny—who knew?

As Lear, Dakin Matthews makes it clear that the king is not just the sad victim he is often portrayed as—his swollen ego values flattery over honesty, he rages intemperately, and in retirement, surrounded by his rowdy consort, he’s more like a drunken frat boy than the recent king of England. In other words, he is the initial cause of his own downfall, even if later he is indeed “more sinned against than sinner.” Matthews adds to the complexity of his performance as the imperfect monarch by finding humor nearly everywhere, from shaking a crown at Cordelia (Rebecca Mozo) as though offering a treat to a dog to flashes of sly wit underlying his scenes of madness. And yet he transitions this entertaining vigor with believable grace into Lear’s final fragility, creating a portrayal of the iconic Lear that is as affecting as it is accomplished.