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O.C. Theater : Mandell Ascends ‘Lear’ Throne

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alan Mandell figures that more scholars have written about “King Lear,” which opens tonight in a Shakespeare Orange County production, than just about any other play--with the possible exceptions of “Hamlet” and “Waiting for Godot.”

Trust him. As one of Southern California’s premier classical actors, Mandell goes out of his way to research his roles. Before playing Prospero in “The Tempest” two summers ago at GroveShakespeare, he read through 12 pounds of critical essays.

This time he hasn’t weighed the material, but he has done his reading. To prepare for the title role in “King Lear"--the show runs through Sept. 10 at Chapman University’s Waltmar Theatre in Orange--he checked into historic essays on the play by everyone from Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt to Leo Tolstoy and Edith Sitwell.

And what did the 66-year-old actor realize after such exemplary intellectual preparation?

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“That I was like a musician working on his scales,” he said in a recent interview. “You go through all of them in all the keys. You examine the text. You explore the emotional power of the scenes. And then you toss everything aside and simply play it. I think this role is terribly important for an actor my age. It’s the Everest of acting.”

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Mandell has wanted to do “Lear” for a long time. He thought he had that chance last summer at GroveShakespeare. But the troupe collapsed financially and canceled its production just days before it was to open in Garden Grove.

“We were at a rehearsal when the chairman of the board came in and said, ‘I have to tell you it’s all over. There’s no more money. But if you’d like to continue rehearsing, go ahead.’ I was stunned.”

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Ironically, SOC had announced “Lear” for its own schedule last summer but dropped it when GroveShakespeare, the larger of the two companies at the time, declared it would do the play with Mandell in the title role.

Clearly upstaged, SOC gracefully stepped aside and substituted “Julius Caesar.” After the Grove’s collapse, SOC artistic director Thomas F. Bradac asked the actor to play Lear for him this season.

The two men were hardly strangers. Bradac directed Mandell, who played Shylock, in an acclaimed production of “The Merchant of Venice” at the Grove in 1991. (Bradac, who founded the Grove in 1979, was ousted as the artistic director of that troupe, also in 1991, by the floundering board. He founded SOC the following year with a handful of Grove defectors.)

“ ‘Lear’ is the most personal of Shakespeare’s plays for me,” said Bradac, who directed it once before at the Grove in 1988 with Daniel Bryan Cartmell in the title role.

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“I think it’s about fathers and their children. You’ve got two fathers in the play, Lear with three daughters and Gloucester with two sons. It strikes a particular chord with me because I see Lear as my father.”

Unlike SOC’s “Twelfth Night,” which had a charming “Alice in Wonderland” overlay, “King Lear” will be set in the period Shakespeare apparently intended: a pagan, pre-Christian era. Although the Bard gave no specific stage directions for this traditional setting, textual references suggest it. The terrain will be an open stage, Bradac said, with scenic motifs taken from ancient Celtic symbols of kingship and authority.

“I’m going pretty much straight at it,” he noted. “This is one of those plays you don’t fool around with. It’s such a monumental play that my artistic satisfaction comes just from getting a handle on it and making it come alive.”

If anybody is looking for a high-concept presentation, they will have to settle for Bradac’s emphasis on “direct address.” Characters in Shakespeare’s comedies often talk directly to the audience. Bradac says this is true of the tragedies as well. In other words, soliloquies are meant to be heard, not overheard.

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“They are not some externalized form of internal psychobabble,” he said.

Bradac wants to break, or at least minimize, the so-called “fourth wall,” a basic tenet of realistic 20th-Century drama, that customarily separates players and audience.

Direct address does that but is usually ignored or underplayed in the tragedies, he said, because it does not fit comfortably with contemporary psychologizing.

“Shakespeare didn’t write Freudian subtext, as we understand it from modern revisionists like Stanislavski or even Olivier,” Bradac said. “He wrote characters who come out and tell their stories to the audience. They engage us in direct address. If you insist on realism, you miss Shakespeare--because Shakespeare isn’t realism.”

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This is not to say that psychology plays no part in dramatic interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragic characters.

If you ask Mandell for a keynote to his role, he speaks about Lear’s regal egoism. It is a volcanic arrogance so great that Lear cannot conceive of himself as anything but the center of the universe.

To summon up the idea of Lear’s sense of self, Mandell tells a story he once heard about the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco on his hospital deathbed.

“He hears the crowd in the street and he asks, ‘What is that noise?’ His daughter tells him, ‘The people, father. They’ve come to say goodby.’ And Franco replies, ‘Oh? Where are they going?’ ”

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Such is Lear’s conceit. In the play’s opening scene, he divides his kingdom among his daughters. He says he is giving away his “power, preeminence and all the large effects.” But he also says “only we still retain the name, and all the additions to a king.”

Mandell is skeptical of Lear’s sudden largess.

“He hasn’t given away his kingdom, not really. What he is saying is, ‘I’m still king.’ He’s like any of the great tyrants and dictators.” It takes many explosions and a descent into madness, he notes, before Lear is stripped down to his essential humanity.

* Shakespeare Orange County’s production of “King Lear” opens tonight at the Waltmar Theatre, Chapman University, 301 E. Palm St., Orange. 8 p.m. Performances continue Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 3 p.m. through Sept. 10. $16-$23. (714) 744-7016.

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