It’s Like Training for the Olympics

Times Staff Writer

The Olympic Arts Festival in 1984 ushered Dakin Matthews onto the Southern California theater scene; since then, the Bay Area transplant has won plaudits as one of the Southland’s most learned and devoted explorers of classic plays.

While working at the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, the Globe Theatres in San Diego, South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, and with his own small classic theater, the Antaeus Company in North Hollywood, the former Shakespeare professor has established himself as a Renaissance man of the stage: actor, director, translator, teacher, playwright and manager.

Now, at 61, Matthews is taking on what he regards as his own Olympic acting event. At South Coast Repertory, he is playing Arnolphe, the haplessly obsessed, female-fearing comic butt of Moliere’s 1662 classic, “The School for Wives.” It is a huge part--840 lines in rhyming couplets. Arnolphe is onstage for 32 of the 34 scenes, reports director David Chambers, and many of his speeches go on for a page or more.


South Coast is using Englishman Ranjit Bolt’s translation, first staged in 1997 by director Peter Hall in a production that had a six-month run in London’s West End. Chambers is setting South Coast’s “School for Wives” in the 1890s because “I think 17th century France is really another planet” and he doesn’t want any sense of archaism or foreignness to keep today’s audiences from picking up on the enduring psychological currents in the play.

With his round build, the gently spoken Matthews doesn’t look as if he has been in training. But he sees Arnolphe, the largest part in his career, as a peak test of what he has learned in 35 years of professional acting.

“It’s like somebody who trains to be an athlete all of his life, and somebody says, ‘You’re going to run the mile for us in the Olympics,’” Matthews said in a recent interview at South Coast Repertory. “The part takes enormous skills. A prodigious memory, lightning-fast comedy skills, and the skill to take a passage this long”--he holds his hands a foot apart--”and know that it’s not just one sentence after another, but that it actually has a shape as a larger piece of word-music. It’s not enough to make every line clear; you must also know how every line fits into that shape.”

Chambers notes that many of those long speeches are emotional roller coasters in which Arnolphe moves rapidly from desperation to rage to antic determination. “Any actor can go from quiet to loud; this role takes enormously rapid internal adjustments to make it have any kind of truth.”

Meeting such a standard would seem to entitle an actor to considerable bragging rights. But for Matthews, the best way to bring the blustery but insecure Arnolphe to life--with all his jealously scheming, control-grasping outrageousness and pathos--is to submerge his own ego.

“As you get older as an actor, you begin to feel much more humble. You begin to say, ‘I don’t want to impose my personality on anything here.’ I feel like a medium. If I’ve developed all the skills necessary for the character to live in me, I don’t create Arnolphe. Moliere created Arnolphe. I just have to give him the way to get out. And if you weren’t as trained and experienced, it wouldn’t come out.”


What will come out is a character whom today’s audiences are apt, off the bat, to find downright hissable. The middle-aged Arnolphe believes that being cuckolded--cheated on by one’s wife--is the most insufferable thing a man can endure. To that end, he has handpicked his spouse-to-be, Agnes, and raised her from the age of 4 to be meek, obedient, mindless--”a total dunce,” as Bolt’s translation puts it. Such a creature, Arnolphe believes, will be incapable of cuckolding him.

As it turns out, Agnes is a natural, honest and open-hearted charmer; she proves immune to Arnolphe’s preposterous “schooling” and blossoms into a fetching lass who ignites true love in a fitting young suitor. The stakes become desperately high for Arnolphe when he too falls deeply in love with the girl he had thought of as a mere ornament and chattel. But it is far too late for his redemption.

Cuckoldry as a social disgrace may not resonate with modern Americans as it did with the 17th century French, acknowledges Matthews, who brings a scholar’s acumen to a discussion of the play. “But what the fear of cuckoldry leads to in Arnolphe is very recognizable. The power women had then was the power to cuckold you. Now we [men] have other reasons to fear for our place in society, but that sense of male insecurity which results in the oppression of women is as current today. Men are constantly thinking themselves threatened by women.”

Matthews feels no need to try to make a bombastic, obsessive fellow like Arnolphe sympathetic or likable. “But what you do is you keep peeling away layers. You show that there is a person there who didn’t have to be that way. Opportunities are offered to Arnolphe to be something else, but he clamps down and won’t let it happen. He’s his own worst enemy, and he suffers enormously.”

Jack O’Brien, artistic director of the Globe Theatres, says Matthews’ strong suit is his ability to uncover surprising, humanizing dimensions in a character. O’Brien directed Matthews last summer as Sir Toby Belch in “Twelfth Night.” Matthews’ performance as that coarse, drunken practical joker captured “an implicit broken sadness, an alcoholic ruin [of] what was probably once a decent guy,” O’Brien said. “He kept coming up with stuff that was hilariously funny and heartbreaking at the same time. He can hit all the comedic highs, but look beyond that and show you the dimensions of the person inside. He doesn’t try to make characters pretty but succeeds in making them real.”

Matthews also triumphed last February as Lord Capulet in Peter Hall’s otherwise tepidly received “Romeo and Juliet” at the Ahmanson. “Matthews knows how to imbue such petty tyrants with both an amusing fussiness and a weird kind of ferocity,” wrote Times critic Michael Phillips. “For about two minutes, this ‘Romeo and Juliet’ becomes a tragedy about Lord Capulet--a walking, fuming reason for teen suicide.”

Matthews’ career as an actor in Shakespeare and other classics began 40 years ago at, of all places, the Vatican in Rome. He was part of a select group of Americans who were studying theology there in hopes of qualifying for the priesthood. Matthews had felt a calling since he was about 12. Theater was a recreational extracurricular for the aspiring priests, and Matthews, who had done some acting as an undergraduate philosophy major at St. Joseph College Seminary in Mountain View, Calif., played Sir John Falstaff in “Henry IV.”

He gave up the priesthood--he decided that the celibate life wasn’t for him--and instead became a professor of English. He taught dramatic texts at the Juilliard School, and Shakespeare and advanced grammar courses at Cal State Hayward; his never-completed doctoral dissertation at New York University was about the clash between paganism and Christianity in “King Lear.”

Starting in the mid-1960s, the scholar-by-day got plenty of acting opportunities at Bay Area theater companies, among them the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. The Olympic Arts Festival brought Matthews to Los Angeles in 1984, for a part in Charles Marowitz’s “Sherlock’s Last Case” at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre. As the father of four now-grown children ( with his wife and fellow dramatist, Anne McNaughton), Matthews decided that film and television work would be the ticket to pay college tuitions. He moved to L.A. and has played dozens of screen roles, although none prominent enough to make him readily identifiable.

“I always get recognized in airports by people who think I went to school with them or something like that,” he says with a laugh. He hopes the writers of TV’s “The Gilmore Girls” and “The King of Queens” will come up with something soon for recurring characters he has played on each. Meanwhile, Matthews is happily deluged with chances to do theater.

At the Globe, he is not only a regular actor, but has directed “Henry V” and adapted “Henry IV,” parts 1 and 2, into a single play that starred John Goodman as Falstaff. Matthews also has written several plays, including “Uncommon Players: A Shakespearean Celebration,” which the Globe produced in 1995. O’Brien, the Globe’s veteran artistic director, hires Matthews as “my own personal dramaturge”--or textual advisor--whenever he directs a Shakespeare play.

“He is one of a very few Renaissance personalities I have run across in my career,” O’Brien said.

In the past decade, Matthews has developed an unusual specialty as a translator of 17th century Spanish comedy. “The Proof of the Promise,” by Juan Ruiz de Alarcon, is his third such project. Previews begin Jan. 31 for the Antaeus Company’s monthlong run of the show.

Matthews confesses to being overmatched in one of his many endeavors: “I’m terrible at raising money.” That’s a problem, because Antaeus, launched in 1991, has no permanent home and needs donations to renovate a building supply warehouse it has acquired. Antaeus has staged two or three plays a season at other venues but hopes to mount its first full season next fall in its own 99-seat theater. Has he ever wondered whether he might have gotten further in life as a specialist rather than a polymath?

“No. I actually think if you’re a stage actor, you have to develop other skills in order to survive. There’s going to be a lot of downtime [between roles], so you should take writing projects, not so much so you have a screenplay in your pocket that somebody is going to produce, but because it keeps your creativity alive. This last 14 months has been terrific for me. I’m living off my savings, I’m practically broke, but I got to play five glorious roles. TV and movies pay the bills and get you recognition. But I’ve realized, ‘What God made you for was to do stage plays, so you’ve got to keep doing them.’”


“THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Dates: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Previews through Thursday; regular performances begin Friday. Ends Feb. 10. Prices: $19-$52. Phone: (714) 708-5555.