A Commanding Stage Presence

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.

Matthews learned his craft on the job--as an actor with the San Francisco Bay Area's Shakespeare festivals, and as a member of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, where he also taught. It was a sideline to his career as a university English instructor.

He helped to found Antaeus in 1991, hoping to perpetuate the sort of ensemble training from which he had benefited. Most of that work has gone on behind the scenes, however. The better part of a decade has passed with very little public activity.

Loosely linked to the Taper for its first four years, the company performed just one main-stage production there: 1994's "The Wood Demon," a new translation of an early Chekhov play. When the association failed to develop further, Antaeus set off on its own.

Since then, the company--which numbers about 65 members at full complement--has scraped together the money for just one production--a 1996 presentation of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" in rented space in Studio City.

If the company ends up with its own theater, it will be because Matthews, its general manager, led the way by purchasing a building-supply warehouse on Vineland Avenue in North Hollywood in 1996, which he is converting into the New Place, named after Shakespeare's home at Stratford. Because of delays, the building remains little more than a shell. The completed renovation is at least a year away.

Matthews is paying for the work, which, among other things, will outfit the space with a thrust stage similar to what was used in Shakespeare's day. The auditorium will seat 85 to 95.

Matthews rents the theater to Antaeus, and he expects the company to pay for the seats, the lighting and sound systems and a semi-permanent set--a building facade with a balcony of the type, once again, common in Shakespeare's era.

Total cost to purchase, design, renovate and equip the theater: at least $500,000, of which Matthews will pay about 80%.

"I'm here in Hollywood to do film and television and make enough money to get my kids through college," Matthews says. "As successful as I've been, it's time to give back to what I truly consider to be the home of the artist--which is theater.

"My dream is that Antaeus will eventually buy this whole thing from me, but it's not necessary."

"He's a real idealist," Antaeus member and fellow "Julius Caesar" cast member Nike Doukas says. "He believes that theater is essential to our lives--and he puts his money where his mouth is."

When he can, Matthews steals time to write plays, including "Uncommon Players," staged at the Old Globe in 1995, and rhyming translations of three plays by the great yet all-but-forgotten Mexican playwright Juan Ruiz de Alarcon.

And then there's the little matter of raising a family with McNaughton, his wife of 29 years. They live in North Hollywood, about a mile from the New Place, and they have four children--all young adults.

"I'm a workaholic, and I know it," Matthews says. "And I don't care to deal with it."

* "Julius Caesar," presented by Shakespeare Festival/LA, City Hall, 200 N. Spring St. Saturday, next Sunday and July 15-19. 8:30 p.m. Free with a suggested donation of nonperishable food items for the needy. Preferred seats, $25. Reservations required. (213) 489-4127. Also, on the quad at Los Angeles City College, 855 N. Vermont Ave., July 21, 8:30 p.m. Free. (213) 953-4336. Also, July 23-26 and July 30-Aug. 2, South Coast Botanical Gardens, 26300 Crenshaw Blvd., Rolling Hills Estates. 8:30 p.m. $15. (310) 377-4316.

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