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Theatre Review (LA): Classicsfest 2011 by Antaeus Company at the Deaf West Theatre

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The prestigious Antaeus Company has recently undergone a sea change. The old artistic director has stepped down and new leaders have taken over. This is not a unique situation in the theatrical world but what is notable is that this all happened just as the company, now in its 20th year and in the middle of its second full season, was to produce its annual Classicsfest – six weeks of serial theatre-going, with 18 plays to be presented in various stages of exploration. Some were read but others nearly costumed and with a suggestion of sets. More often than not, the actors were more or less off-book.

This year’s Classicsfest was one of the best ever, comprising works from Aristophanes to Wilder, Albee to Williams, and of course, a healthy dose of Shakespeare – a remarkable achievement by a remarkable company. The fact that this Classicsfest was a roaring success only illustrates just how good this ensemble is and can be.

Some of the shows were one-offs, like a wonderful production directed by Elizabeth Swain of Aphra Behn’s Lucky Chance. Aphra Behn was a woman playwright of the Renaissance and the production provided the company and the audience a chance to get a glimpse of her “shocking indecencies.” A Delicate Balance, a difficult play if there ever was one, was beautifully done as directed by Robin Larsen. Othello and the rarely performed Caesar and Cleopatra were also given only one performance each, but with impressive results. Likewise the obscure Terence Rattigan play After the Dance and Kaufman and Hart’s merry madness You Can’t Take it With You, which turned out to be one of the hits of the festival.

Other shows were given more than one performance. A very well done Twelfth Night, a pensive Long Day’s Journey into Night, an imaginative Macbeth directed by Jessica Zubzansky, Wilder’s delightful Matchmaker (the basis for Hello Dolly), The Legend of Oedipus, and a delightful Doctor’s Dilemma by Shaw.

There were some special events and treats along the way, including symposia about Shakespeare’s authorship and about the art of translation. The audience was treated to Double Falsehood, a disputed lost play of Shakespeare; though not very good, it was a definite plus for a theatre nerd like myself. The A2 Company, a younger company of actors who are the next generation of Antaeans, put on a raucous Lysistrata. Tennessee Williams got a birthday party via a presentation of scenes from his plays, and an improvisational group entertained us with some made-up Williams as suggested by the audience. There were two performances of cabaret songs with a 1930s theme.

A special treat was a reading of The Wood Demon by Chekov, which was the first Antaeus show produced (on the Taper stage) 20 years ago. It may have been 20 years but this company is still thriving and challenging themselves and their audiences. Look for their final production of this, their second full season, Peace in our Time by Noel Coward, including some songs with special permission by the estate. Peace in our Time will be presented at the Deaf West Theatre Oct 13 through Dec. 11.

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About Robert Machray