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A Commanding Stage Presence

Colleagues say Dakin Matthews contributes leadership qualities to the title role in the Shakespeare Festival/LA 'Julius Caesar.'

July 05, 1998|Daryl H. Miller | Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based theater writer

Sitting in the library of the unfinished theater he's underwriting in North Hollywood, Dakin Matthews is surrounded by scripts.

The stories call out, pleading to be told.

Or that's the way it seems, at least, as Matthews--an actor, director, dramaturge, playwright and theater administrator--talks about the importance of drama, and classic drama in particular.

"These are some of the deepest and most perceptive thoughts about humanity" ever written, says Matthews, with a facsimile copy of Shakespeare's first folio lying on the conference table in front of him. "That's why they've lasted this long."

It's not enough to preserve them on the page, he says. They must be performed. "Otherwise, it's like having photos of the great statues, instead of having the statues themselves."

This passion fires Matthews' work with the Antaeus Company, the classical theater ensemble he heads (and for which he is quietly building the theater with roughly $400,000 of his own money), as well as his performances at theaters throughout Southern California. Next up, he will play the title role in "Julius Caesar" for one of Antaeus' friendly rivals, Shakespeare Festival/LA. The show opens Saturday on the steps of City Hall in downtown Los Angeles, where it will be performed through July 19 before moving to other outdoor sites.

Though Matthews, 57, spent a number of years preparing to become a Roman Catholic priest, he stopped short of being ordained. To hear him talk about the theater is to realize what the church missed out on. His gentle, professorial voice swells with the passion of his beliefs, and his eyes flash with a mixture of merriment and intensity.

"I believe that the arts of a culture are terribly important, and yet almost indefensible," he says. "You can't argue that you have to have art, and prove it to anybody. Why should I give $1,000 to art when there are people starving? Of course, that's true. But just because you can't, theoretically, defend the arts, or make a sensible argument for their preservation, doesn't mean they're not important. We continually underestimate their importance."

Matthews' face is familiar, though most people would be hard-pressed to place it. He is one of that curious Hollywood breed known as the "working unknown actor." On television, he played authoritarian bishop to Dan Aykroyd's Episcopal minister on ABC's "Soul Man"; in the movies, he again played a minister, officiating at the Robin Williams character's wedding in "Flubber"; and onstage, he portrayed such memorable roles as writer C.S. Lewis in "Shadowlands" at South Coast Repertory.

Recognized or not, Matthews is the sort of player that Shakespeare Festival producing artistic director Ben Donenberg is glad to have moonlighting on his team. "Dakin has command," Donenberg says later by phone. "He commands the text. He has a presence onstage that is commanding." And he has "a well of experience that really elevates everybody else's game. It's like playing with Michael Jordan on your team."

"Julius Caesar" director Andrew Tsao, who also staged last summer's Shakespeare Festival production of "The Tempest," considers Matthews a true Renaissance man. "I just feel lucky to work with him. I learn from him every day in rehearsal."

Tsao met Matthews while directing episodes of "Soul Man." They discussed Shakespeare on their breaks and, soon, Matthews had signed on as dramaturge--or text advisor--for "Tempest," then dramaturge and performer for "Julius Caesar."

Based on the life of 1st century BC Roman war hero and dictator Julius Caesar, Shakespeare's play is a tumultuous tale of political ambition and alarmed opposition, of plots and counterplots, of killing and its unbearable aftermath.

Matthews has had a particularly fruitful association with "Julius Caesar," having returned to the play more often than almost any other in the classical canon.

He spoke his first line of Shakespeare onstage as a member of the crowd in a student production in his junior year of high school. As a graduate seminary student, he staged and starred in a production, and after opting out of the priesthood and embarking on an acting career in the San Francisco Bay Area, he made one of his earliest professional appearances in a Marin Shakespeare Festival production. A couple of years later, he played Brutus for the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival.

In 1986, he and his director wife, Anne McNaughton, were tapped to adapt and stage "Julius Caesar" at the Old Globe in San Diego. And in 1991, just a couple of days before preview performances began, Matthews was asked to replace the actor playing Brutus in Oskar Eustis' unconventional staging for Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum.

Tsao intends his staging to feel timeless yet very familiar. City Hall's looming presence will evoke the present day, as will the packs of reporters onstage covering the characters' every move. "It'll feel like Camp O.J.," Matthews says.

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