By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In Moscow a couple of years ago, I interviewed retired Russian Army Colonel Yuri Yuryevich, who was once editor of the Soviet military newspaper Red Star. Challenging the legend of Soviet repression of a free press, Yuryevich insisted that "We could say anything we wanted, except for calling the president an idiot. Why would one risk one's entire career to call Breshnev an idiot?" he explained, "which everybody already knew."
Yuryevich went on to express his wistfulness at watching the United States — now "alone on the world stage" making exactly the same mistakes made by the Soviet Union right before its empire collapsed. By this, he was referring to both nations' respective, rigid ideologies and the desire to control an uncontrollable world on borrowed resources. Obama was not yet president, but he was already speaking of transferring America's war on terror from Iraq to Afghanistan, which Yuryevich described as a quagmire that would sink us, as it had sunk the Soviet Union.
"Watching your behavior is like watching an old movie of ourselves," he said.
Just two years later, Republican National Chairman Michael Steele characterized the war in Afghanstian as "a war of Obama's choosing," before essentially calling the president an idiot: "If he's such a student of history, has he not understood that, you know, that's the one thing you don't do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan? All right? Because everyone who's tried, over a thousand years of history, has failed." (This is pretty much what Yuryevich had told me two years earlier.)
These words, and the opinions they carry, may cost Steele his job. He's being lambasted by Democrats and Republicans alike for hammering at the war effort with his free speech, which wasn't even a speech but offhand remarks caught on video. And despite his obvious agenda and job description to challenge the Democratic Party and its leaders, perhaps there's some truth to his words.
Where does our right to criticize authority begin and end? When does critique serve an agenda, and when does it serve a larger truth? Because the larger truths do eventually, inevitably come home. And what's the difference between telling the truth and merely being belligerent? Is defending the former condoning the latter? Are diplomacy and tact merely falsehoods, lies of omission, or are they vehicles to keep the conversation open, in the service of the truth? And when does flattery become duplicity?
Aging King Lear asks of his three daughters — as he's about to distribute his lands to them and their husbands — who loves him most? When the youngest, still unmarried Cordelia, refuses to indulge in the flattery at which her older sisters excel ("I cannot heave my heart into my mouth: I love your majesty according to my bond; no more nor less.") the old man's infantile rage leads to the banishment of this, his most beloved child. The subsequent distribution of his kingdom to the remaining flatterers leads to a civil war that will undo them all. The theme of speech, and its dubious freedoms, becomes filtered through a multitude of scenes: The king's Fool mocks his master: "I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are: they'll have me whipped for speaking true, thou'lt have me whipped for lying; and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace." The Duke of Kent, whom Lear banishes for defending Cordelia, goes in disguise in order to continue serving the increasingly raving monarch. After lambasting the steward of the elder daughter with a bouquet of curses, Kent proceeds to insult all assembled: "Sir, 'tis my occupation to be plain: I have seen better faces in my time than stands on any shoulder that I see before me at this instant."
This is not a policy he's advocating, but a freedom of speech that presumes the right to belittle, gratuitously, everyone in his company, like a medieval precursor of Lenny Bruce. For these words, Kent is placed in the stocks, not unlike the way Bruce was jailed for his similarly "offensive" words.
The Antaeus company presents the play in repertory with two casts, each with more strengths than weaknesses, and both directed by Bart DeLorenzo with identical costumes and scenic concepts, and similar stage movement.
In the 1980s and 1990s, when Joe Stern's Matrix Theatre was a prominent creative force, you'd see similarly double-cast productions with excellent ensembles, presumably in the interest of maximizing employment for the company members. In fact, Gregory Itzin, playing Kent in "The Madmen" worked with that company, too.
I feel no regret for the investment of time, having sat through both versions at two hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. Not only is the play a wonder, you can actually hear it, with lucidity and intelligence. Most productions wear out their welcome on the heath, when the play gets mired in the sludge and drenched in the tempest, and in metaphysical ruminations so obviously borrowed by Samuel Beckett ("When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools."). Not so DeLorenzo's staging, which just gets better as it rolls along.