Richard III

The problem for us is always the drive. We are west of the 405 freeway; Antaeus is east of it. What that means in LA these days is that you can't get there from here. But we had seen their brilliant King Lear last year, and now they were doing Richard III, for donations, mind you -- suggested $10 each -- and we decided to go for it.

Despite the curtain time, 7 p.m., the worst possible in L.A., in terms of traffic, we decided to try Beverly Glen instead of the freeway, a canyon cutting across the city, that first skirts some pretty grand places on the edge of Westwood and Beverly Hills, and then turns wild and beautiful as you head north. Steep hillsides with cool canyon houses that almost feels like a real community, a dusty little hang-out where you could pop over to the neighbor's for sugar or some music, except that the road between your houses is clogged, choked, bumper to bumper, with traffic. It was 6 p.m. -- must happen, in alternating directions, twice a day.

We should have left at 5:30. Obviously. Antaeus closes its doors when the play starts, and Richard III was long. If we were late, that meant we would stand around for at least an hour or two on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood -- NoHo, they are trying to call it, but it doesn't change the fact that there's nothing much there but crummy pizza joints and a "wine bar" with a lot of TV. Plus we were meeting a friend from New York who was coming from the east, against the traffic, and would be there on time. On the other hand, when we finally got to the top, to the Valley, there was a freeway right there, working the way whoever it was who envisioned the whole monstrous thing must have imagined they would work, and it whisked us the rest of the way in no time. At 7:04, we slipped though the door and into the last two seats in the last row of the theater.

Which didn't matter, because the theater is small and every seat is wonderful. This was a -- what do they call it? When the actors are dressed in their street clothes, reading from the script? No costumes, no scenery, but from the moment Armin Shimerman came limping onto the stage, all that was irrelevant, or rather, invisible. The chairs, the clothes, the scripts -- all nothing to the drama. The passion. The way theater overwhelms it all when it's working.

And with Antaeus, it works, despite its minimal space, despite its almost anti-glamourous cast--old, young, some even fat -- despite any and everything. A cell phone beeped. Richard III, for he was no longer Shimerman, stopped, turned with a glare, marked out the guilty party. It was another old man [remember the Mahler in New York?] with a BlackBerry he didn't know how to work. The people around him fumbled; "Who know'st this devilish device?" demanded Richard III. A very cute boy beside me called down for them to hit the button, top left. The play resumed.

And it is long, and we were glad for intermission. Everyone piled out the doors, and stood in the street. "You know, he wasn't really a hunchback," my friend said. I had no idea. My Richard III came from Shakespeare.

But Shakespeare, said a man standing nearby, was writing for the great Queen Elizabeth I, whose grandfather, Henry VII, toppled Richard from the throne. This play, he told us, can in fact be viewed as a propaganda piece, justifying that act of usurpation.

Shakespeare? As an apparatchik? Who knew?? I found myself a bit offended after that, by the way he went on and on. It was one thing for him to curry favor, but another for us to sit through it. On the other hand, it was Antaeus, and we were all within its magic -- which was why the man had spoken to us, probably why he was there to begin with, why we were there. Because something always happens in that place where art comes first, and not only did we get a history lesson on the side, but we heard from the great Queen Margaret [Claudette Nevins] on the stage, about how to learn to place an effective curse -- "Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days" -- and there was Richard at the famous end, "A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!"

And we were there, in Bosworth Field, even though, they -- the actors -- were ranged in folding chairs before us, because they are Antaeus, and he, even with an agenda, is Shakespeare, and though we walked out too late to get supper, the drive home was a piece of cake. No one on the 405 now, except the army of workers, adding a sixth or seventh lane, in both directions.

The works are on an almost inconceivable scale --"Pharaonic." We disagreed over how to pronounce it, but it was the word. And you could see that what they were spending there, both in money and resources, sheer mass and weight and time, could have built a good light rail, maybe two. But this is L.A., and this is what they're doing. It took us twenty minutes to get home.