SAN DIEGO — Early on in his one-man show, Ian McKellen distinguishes between a "spectacle" such as "Cats," which is performed for spectators, and theater like "Ian McKellen Acting Shakespeare," which is done for an "audience," of which the root, he points out, touching his ear, is the word "audio"--relating to hearing or sound.
Indeed, as McKellen begins his show, which plays at the Old Globe Theatre through Oct. 11, he seems alarmingly determined to throw all theatrical magic to the winds.
Jogging up the aisle in baggy pants with the house lights on, he waves, smiling as he mounts the usually opulently bedecked Old Globe stage, which in his honor is bared of all but a single chair.
Then that exquisitely tuned instrument, his voice, leaps into "All the world's a stage," from "As You Like It" and the magic begins in earnest--on McKellen's terms--in the audio sphere.
This doesn't mean you should close your eyes and just listen--although a recorded version of this show might be quite enjoyable, too. McKellen doesn't need props or costumes or music or even makeup to move from Hamlet to the Duke of Gloucester to Falstaff and both Romeo and Juliet. But it is downright magical to see his arm wither and his leg shrivel as the hunchbacked king, his eyes shrink back in the bloated face of the fat Falstaff, the years melt as the 48-year-old actor becomes the passionate, teen-age Romeo.
And with that Romeo lingering--death scene and all--in the memory, it's no wonder that when later in the show McKellen asked for volunteers to help him with a scene, so many pretty young girls--much to the amusement of the audience--clamored to be first in line.
Indeed, McKellen plays a bit of the Romeo all through the show, however his love object is not Juliet, but the Bard himself. For McKellen's intent is to show off not merely his talents but also those of the master that this production celebrates.
"I love this man," McKellen says frankly, as he bends down to the stage and reverently brushes imagined dust off Shakespeare's imagined grave. He takes us on a journey through the playwright's boyhood, re-creating the first time young Will might have seen the legendary actor Richard Burbage. He weaves in his own experiences with his first Shakespeare plays--from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in which McKellen's sister played Bottom (not well, his rolling eyes seem to suggest) and the "Hamlet" he saw with Sir Laurence Olivier and Jean Simmons, which so stirred him that afterward he re-enacted crucial scenes with finger puppets.
(Ah, what a brave new world this would be if more children preferred Hamlet and Ophelia dolls to Barbie and G.I. Joe!)
He brings Samuel Pepys and George Bernard Shaw--as critic--to life. He shares his own worst review (in which it was said that the best thing about his "Hamlet" was his curtain call). He involves the audience, asking them at one point to name all 37 of Shakespeare's plays and reciting in the end from a disputed 38th, a collaborative effort about Sir Thomas More.
There are choice anecdotes about the great actors he has known; he shares Sir John Gielgud's advice on how to play Lear: "Get a small Cordelia." Then he digs into the "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow" speech of Macbeth, interpreting it line by line for the audience, then going back and reciting it dramatically.
His analysis, while a laudatory inclusion from the pedagogical point of view, is also the shakiest part of this presentation. Indeed, one might even say that his interpretation here is dead wrong and buys histrionics at the expense of lingering despair. One might quarrel similarly with his Juliet, in which the delicate blooming of love first realized is crushed beneath the wheels of a 400-horsepower delivery.
But even when issue can be taken with his conception of the material--which, to be fair, isn't all that often--there remains the pure, charged delight of listening to him caress the syllables, his voice gliding, leaping, soaring at times on the surface like a skater dancing on the ice.
McKellen's passion for the material never leaves him, and that, ultimately, is the glory of the show. Despite the title, that is what this production is really about--not acting Shakespeare, but loving the literary Prometheus who changed the English language forever.
Ian McKellen and the Bard--who could ask for anything more? Not this critic. This show is recommended for others who share his passion and those who don't--yet. The show closes Sunday. Run, don't walk, to the Old Globe Theatre.
"IAN McKELLEN ACTING SHAKESPEARE" Directed and arranged from the work of William Shakespeare by Ian McKellen, who stars. At 8 p.m. through Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday. Closes Sunday. At the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park, San Diego.