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McKellen Offers a Comfortably Breezy Evening

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Ian McKellen, that wonderfully elegant, frequently Shakespearean actor, proves the cliche that we would happily watch a good actor read from the phone book. Although in this case, Sir Ian recites the Beaufort scale.

The Beaufort scale is a meteorological chart describing the effects of wind force, from zero (calm) to 12 (hurricane). McKellen enacts the scale as the encore to his one-man show, “A Knight Out in Los Angeles,” a benefit for several gay organizations and local theaters. He performs for two weeks only at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

Dressed informally in black, Sir Ian starts off serenely with the early stages of wind disturbance. “Two. Light breeze. Wind felt on face,” he says, eyes half closed, apparently enjoying a gentle breeze on his cheek. By the time he gets to 10 (“Who-ooole gale! Trees uprooted!”), he is King Lear, howling in the storm, his terrified eyes seeming to follow oaks that are taking flight before him.

The Beaufort scale has never been so entertaining.

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Most of the show, though, stays focused on McKellen’s theme, a literary plea for an empathetic understanding of homosexuality, intertwined with the actor’s own autobiography. “Ellen” has nothing on Sir Ian. He famously “came out” as a gay man shortly before being knighted in 1991, and has been a spokesperson for honesty and for general tolerance ever since, raising large sums of money for AIDS hospices and other causes. First developed in 1994 at the Gay Games in New York, “A Knight Out” is the graceful summation of McKellen’s journey.

*

As he demonstrated in his one-man show, “Acting Shakespeare,” McKellen is a writer as well as an actor, adept at choosing and interpreting dramatic passages to illustrate his points. From Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” he performs what he persuasively identifies as a love scene between Caius Martius and Cominius, two soldiers on the battlefield. He calls Marlowe’s Edward II the first gay hero in dramatic literature and performs the part of the assassin who disembowels Edward (anyone who has seen his Richard III knows what a terrific villain he can be). He movingly recites “fear no more” from “Cymbeline” as a eulogy for friends who have died.

McKellen also dips into nonfiction, describing Oscar Wilde’s trial for “gross indecency.” He takes the part of the judge who issues the chilling statement just before sentencing: “It is the worst case I have ever tried.”

Directed by Gregory Cooke, the evening has a pleasantly conspiratorial air. McKellen confesses to minor acts of probably illegal activism--whenever he goes into a hotel room, he tells us, he tears out the page from Leviticus that refers to homosexuality as an abomination.

He also relates stories of the actor’s life. He summons the memory of Henry Irving (the first actor to have been knighted) and recalls introducing Noel Coward to Nureyev in his dressing room at Edinburgh in 1969 (“I’m sure it was not the first time they had met”). He’s also an entertaining gossip, slyly dissing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting without actually saying anything damning. He takes some potshots at the theater in which he is performing, raising an eyebrow at its name. “Theater 3,” he muses, sending his scepticism into the house. “It promises you nothing . . . except that you’re not in Theater 2.”

Coming from a long line of preachers and ministers, McKellen continues their good work by melding art and activism with unusual felicity. Toward the end of the evening, he reads a letter he received soon after coming out. The author is so fuming with hatred that it is almost comic, and indeed the audience began to laugh as the writer called Sir Ian everything from an arch abomination to the devil’s poodle.

Even if he is preaching to the converted, McKellen makes us aware of the vast and powerful intolerance outside the comfortable walls of the theater. Endowed with a rare technique, he is a natural storyteller, an admirable human being and a hands-on activist. He stands by the door and holds the basket for donations at the end of the evening.

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* “A Knight Out in Los Angeles,” Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Tuesday-Sunday, 8 p.m. Ends June 1. $20-$25. (213) 485-1681. Running time: 2 hours.


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