Dakin Matthews: At Liberty to Create

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Liberty Inn, presented by Andak Stage Company, continues Fri., 8 pm; Sat. 2 and 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm; through April 25. Tickets: $25. NewPlace Studio Theatre, 10950 Peach Grove St., North Hollywood. Call 866.811.4111 or visit www.andak.org.

Dakin Matthews
Dakin Matthews

Dakin Matthews is a man whose prodigious creative output instantly invokes Orson Welles comparisons for the sheer audacity of its award-winning range. Actor. Director. Playwright. Dramaturge. Shakespeare scholar. Translator. Teacher. Producer. He recently added book writer and lyricist to his curriculum vitae with Liberty Inn: The Musical, based upon his translation of Carlo Goldoni’s La Locandiera and set to music by B.T. Ryback, now enjoying a world premiere at Matthews’ Andak Stage Company. Or a “one man stimulus package” as he jokingly calls it.

“Basically everything I make in film and television, I put into this,” Matthews explains one morning over tea onstage at the NewPlace Studio Theatre space he created in North Hollywood with wife Anne Naughton to house Andak six years ago. “We don’t really announce a season. We just decide what we want to do.  But I have to build up my financial resources in between because you lose money every time you do one of these things. That’s why I feel I’m a stimulus package. Film and TV have been very kind to me. So I figure I’ll just turn it around and send it out to other artists who deserve a place where they can explore their craft.”

Matthews has long been a familiar fixture on television playing such recurring roles as Reverend Sikes on Desperate Housewives, Judge Carroll on General Hospital, Joe Hefferman on The King of Queens or Hanlin Charleston on Gilmore Girls besides acting in more than 20 features. At the time of this interview, the California-bred character actor had just returned from London re-shooting the ending of a movie originally filmed in Budapest and was flying to Austin later this month to play the Strother Martin role in the Coen Brothers remake of True Grit. Despite the Up in the Air style scenario, most of his frequent-flyer travels in recent years have not been for screen work but for stage.

Last year director Sam Mendes kept Matthews’ bags packed and passport stamped as a member of The Bridge Project, a joint producing venture by The Old Vic, Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and Mendes’ Neal Street Productions, which sent a British and American troupe of actors touring the globe for nine months presenting The Cherry Orchard and The Winter’s Tale. In 2008, Matthews debuted in King Lear for Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, then flew to Washington, DC to play three roles in Hamlet for The Shakespeare Theater Company before finishing up the year on Broadway in A Man for All Seasons starring Frank Langella.

Dakin Matthews as Hitch and Sarah Aldrich as The Blonde in South Coast Rep's Hitchcock Blonde.
Dakin Matthews as Hitch and Sarah Aldrich as The Blonde in South Coast Rep’s “Hitchcock Blonde.”

The previous year LA audiences saw him in History Boys at the Ahmanson, Hamlet at South Coast Repertory and The Misanthrope at Andak. Prior Southern California appearances include Water & Power (Ovation Award) and Stuff Happens at the Mark Taper Forum, Hitchcock Blonde at SCR as the titular director and his own play The Prince of LA at the Old Globe Theatre and Andak Stage Company, which earned the LADCC’s 2004 Ted Schmitt Award for world premiere play the same year he received the Margaret Harford Award for sustained excellence in the theatre.

Matthews as Warwick in his adapation of King Henry V
Matthews as Warwick in his adapation of Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”

None of this includes the significant plays, dramaturge work, master classes, workshops or translations Matthews conducted throughout the same period across the country or in years prior. One of his most noted is an adaption of Henry IV, which he also dramaturged and performed in at Lincoln Center, that won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Revival and earned him a special Drama Desk Award. He translated La Locandiera (The Landlady) 30 years ago when he was Artistic Director of the California Actors Theatre in Los Gatos, a title he has similarly held at both the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival and Antaeus Company.

“I’m crazy about Goldoni,” Matthews admits. “The only thing almost anybody knows of his is Servant of Two Masters or maybe The Venetian Twins. This play was mildly well known from a translation that Lady Gregory had done. I went back to the original and realized it was a much richer play than she had translated. She had cut a bunch of characters and trimmed a lot of it down. I thought it’d be fun to do a new translation. So I directed it and some of those cast members I invited back here to see [this version] on Saturday.”

Matthews’ translation transferred the piece from its original 18th century Italian setting to post colonial Liberty Hill, New York circa 1787. Innkeeper Mirandolina strives to keep her freedom (aka liberty) against the amorous advances of her besotted boarders including an English count, a French marquis, a Hessian captain and his devoted house man, with unexpected support from a travelling actress and the captain’s aide. Matthews says he wanted to delve more deeply into the play’s feminist themes than Goldoni could present in his time.

John C. Combs (as the Count) and Charlotte Di Gregorio (as Sofia) in Liberty Inn
John C. Combs (as the Count) and Charlotte Di Gregorio (as Sofia) in “Liberty Inn”

“It’s pretty feminist as it is,’ he explains. “But I wanted to explore the opposite of his Mirandolina, which is a woman who puts out her sexuality in order to get what she wants, with a Mirandolina who withholds her sexuality to get what she wants. Part of the reason I put it in Liberty is that I first thought about translating it, god 40 years ago, when I was with John Houseman’s The Acting Company. We were performing in Saratoga and had done an earlier tour to Liberty, New York, which is where Grossinger’s is. I thought maybe they could do it there in Saratoga because Liberty is not that far away.”

In 2007, one of the original California Theatre Company cast members now its artistic director asked if he could remount Liberty Inn at Sunnyvale Community Center Theatre the following summer. When Matthews revisited the play again, he suddenly saw music on its pages.

“I said boy, this would make a really good musical,” he recalls. “Just the way the scenes were intermixed with monologues and there are a lot of them in the piece. I thought you could certainly turn the monologues into stand-alone songs. Even some of the action in the play would make interesting music as well.”

Matthews had co-written a “semi-musical” 20 years earlier for Berkeley Shakespeare Festival, which according to him was not successful. “It was OK.” But he had written lyrics before for song interludes in his Spanish translations with composer Carl Smith as well as a few individual efforts with other composers. “I’d been writing a lot of verse the last 20 years doing translations and some original verse. I thought I’d like to try my hand at some lyrics so let’s see what happens.”

The first ones popped into his head while standing on the Metro platform at the Civic Center stop in downtown LA waiting to return home from a History Boys rehearsal in the fall 2007. By this point, Matthews had re-read the play, re-translated it and marked places he thought songs might appear. “I’d never done a musical so I didn’t really know how to do it. So I stood on the platform and wrote that lyric in my head. It actually is one of the early songs in the show, ‘When She Looks at Me What Does She See?’ It’s still there.”

Ironically Matthews found his new musical collaborator right under his nose. Reviewing the History Boys program on opening night, he discovered his young co-star Brett Ryback was an accomplished composer and playwright. Ryback, who played Scripps, wrote the book for the new musical Darling for the Pace New Musicals 2009 in New York, was a 2007 Richard Rodgers Award Finalist for book, music and lyrics for Quit India, assisted composer Paul Chihara for the Atlanta Ballet’s world premiere production of The Great Gatsby, won the 2007 Tennessee Williams One-Act Competition for his play Weïrd, which was published in The Best American Short Plays 2007-2008 along with A Roz By Any Other Name, and penned I, Abraham on a commission from UCLA where it was staged by John Rubinstein.

Ryback’s local acting credits include Red Herring at Laguna Playhouse, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at La Mirada Theatre, Mary’s Wedding at The Colony and Imagine at South Coast Repertory where he is currently appearing in the world premiere of Dr. Cerebus directed by Bart DeLorenzo, who coincidently is about to start rehearsals later this month for King Lear starring Matthews for Antaeus Company.

“He’s a wonderful actor,” says Matthews. “I liked him enormously. So I went online to listen to a couple of his songs. I liked the music a lot and just said to him one day when we were doing the show, or it might have been after the show was done, would you like to write a musical with me? He’d just finished one and was about to start the other. I said I’m going out of town for awhile because right after History Boys I went to Pittsburgh to do King Lear, Washington DC to do the Hamlet and New York to do A Man for All Seasons on Broadway and then I went into The Bridge Project. But how about if I write lyrics and email them to you? And you can email me back mp3 files? So we wrote about half the show that way until I got back.”

John DeMita (as Marquis)
John DeMita (as Marquis)

Five months ago the two workshopped and presented a one night concert version starring Broadway veterans Deborah May and Norman Snow, who would later lead the current cast featuring John Combs, John DeMita, Charlotte DiGregorio, Mark Doerr and Bill Mendieta.  According to Matthews, reception to the piece was enthusiastic, which to him meant a green light. Not so fast replied his young wunderkind composer.

“Brett said, oh no, you don’t understand about musicals,” laughs Matthews. “We’re nowhere near ready to go. We have to write six new songs and this one needs to go over there and we have to rewrite this one and…. Here this 25-year-old boy genius is educating me and I’ve been doing this for 50 years,” he says as an aside. “Educating me on how to write a musical which is great because I love learning. Any day I don’t learn is a bad day.”

For example, Matthews knew nothing about song structure, which he says was both a curse and a blessing. “I would send Brett something and he would say, I can’t write music to this. This isn’t structured the right way. Then we’d get together and massage it. Other times he’d say, this isn’t the right song structure but it might be interesting to write music for this so it won’t fall into the normal song pattern. My ignorance was kind of a blessing once in awhile. Most of the time he had to sort me out.”

With 23 songs plus finale, the show is nearly an operetta. According to Matthews, it’s halfway between musical comedy and operetta with shades of Gilbert and Sullivan. His favorite song is “Wiesbaden,” a faux Bertolt Brecht send-up ala Marlene Dietrich via Madeline Kahn. He thinks Ryback’s might be “Together,” a more Sondheim-styled tune. ‘”The Company of Men’ and the reprise of ‘When She Looks at Me,’ those songs back-to-back are kind of thrilling in their musical comedy. Unfortunately, they’re sort of 11:00 numbers that come in at 9:30!” he laughs, covering his face. “They’re a little too early! That’s hard.”

What’s not been is his collaboration with Ryback, who composed a finale score that incorporated lines Matthews took from the marriage ceremony, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, plus reprised five songs from the beginning of the play.

“All seven people are singing at the same time,” he enthuses. “I mean he wrote almost operatic trios in a number of places. I’m just in awe of his talent. He is the most glorious, smart, really talented composer. I said to him just the other day. Can we be Matthews & Ryback for a few more years? Because I know pretty soon it’s going to be Ryback & Matthews and then Ryback and everybody else!”

A Bucket List Leads to A Bridge Project

Fans of the 2007 film The Bucket List know it’s about two terminally ill guys, Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, who flee their shared hospital room to accomplish a list of things each one wants to do before they “kick the bucket.” Three years earlier, Matthews says he made such a list comprised of the roles he wanted to play, figuring he had about 15 years left to do them. He had no idea it would set in motion a new regional theatre life that would lead to Broadway and audiences around the world.

Matthews as Big Daddy
Matthews as Big Daddy

“I’d never done that before,” he confesses. “I hate making want lists because you’re going to be disappointed if it doesn’t happen. But like two weeks after I made it up I got a call from Dallas Theatre Center to come play Big Daddy. It was one of the roles on my list! Of course I went down there and met the director and he said, you’ve played this before, right? I was replacing somebody on short notice. They were already 2 ½ weeks into rehearsal. I said, no. He said oh, we all thought you’d played it before! That’s why we asked you to come in. Of course, Big Daddy doesn’t come on until the second act, so it was fine. I had a great time.”

Two years later, he got a call out of the blue to play King Lear from Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre’s Artistic Director Andrew S. Paul, whom he didn’t know. Though Lear had been the subject of his New York University dissertation 40 years ago, and he had since developed an intimate understanding of the text in the decades hence, Matthews had never played the role. What surprised him about doing it after studying and teaching it for so long?

“I was surprised at how easy it was,” he admits. “Isn’t that a shock? Because you know, I was 68 or 69, whatever I was and not in the best shape in the world. I thought this really is going to be a haul and I didn’t find it that difficult actually. Vocally, I was surprised. I guess it was good I lived about two miles from the theatre so I walked every day. King Lear is actually not a huge role. It’s very much an ensemble piece.”

Matthews also acted as the play’s dramaturge and helped the director shape the play into its two hour and thirty-five minute running time. Though not a highly conceptualized production, it did feature real rain and a mud pit for the storm scene.

Matthews as Lear and Larry John Meyers as Gloucester
Matthews as Lear and Larry John Meyers as Gloucester

“I was standing barefoot in mud with water just flooding down on me. So no acting is required. You are there. So that was a great relief to me. I’m not a big fan of special effects but to have any need to create the storm removed from you and to simply react to the physical circumstance you were in was great. Plus we had a terrific cast. At no time did you feel like you were hauling the play on your back up a hill.”

Matthews admits he had long been in training for the part. “I’ve been preparing to play it for 40 years. I didn’t have any trouble learning it because I was so familiar with the play. Even the cuts that we made. Five lines here, three lines there. It wasn’t that taxing.”

What was taxing in comparison were the three roles he played in Hamlet at the 5,000 seat Carter Barron Amphitheatre in Washington, DC later that summer, which entailed six complete costume and make-up changes in dressing rooms two flights from the stage. “I played the ghost, the gravedigger and the first player. I spent almost all my time running up and down stairs, changing these huge costumes and all my makeup from full Kabuki to sort of Willie Nelson. And once those three characters are on stage, they do massive soliloquies or massive comedy and then they’re off. I was exhausted! I said, ‘Let me do King Lear again, please!'”

The gods must have heard Matthews because he will be reprising the role beginning June 12 at Antaeus. He says he plans to stay wide open and let whatever happens happen during this homecoming production at the theatrical company he helped found. He likes directors and thinks that DeLorenzo plans to use the same cutting he did for Pittsburgh. What Matthews doesn’t want to do is duplicate himself.

“I’ve worked with a couple of Lears who’ve done it before,” he explains. “Each time they do it again, it’s not as good as the first time. I’ll say that about my own performances. At the same time, when you do a major role in a Shakespeare play, you are cutting your way through a jungle. If you’ve actually found a path that got you to the end and you get about four steps into the jungle and the director says no don’t go that way, go this way, your brain thinks, OMG! I know how to get through this and you’re telling me I can’t use my pathway and I have to hack another way, which may not get to the end.  It’s a terrifying idea. And in the Pittsburgh production, I believe I had a really valuable path through the play. So we’ll see what happens. I want to stay as open as possible.”

Matthews as Cardinal John in the Andak production of The Prince of L.A.
Matthews as Cardinal John in the Andak production of “The Prince of L.A.”

Despite Matthews’ Hamlet protestations, it did offer a conveniently located launch pad to help clinch his role in the October 2008 Broadway production of A Man for All Seasons. Earlier that year, he had sent an audition tape performing the Cardinal Woolsey scene on the same set he used for his award winning production of The Prince of L.A. fully clad in its resplendent Cardinal garb. The response was immediate. “They were completely blown away!” says Matthews. “Not by the performance but the production value! ‘You had a Cardinal outfit! You had a window that you walked by! You had candles!’ They really liked it. My agent said they were thinking about it even though they don’t like to pay someone to come to town.”

By the time Matthews came to DC, his role was still under consideration. He offered to fly up to meet with star Frank Langella and director Doug Hughes. The reputation of his video audition preceded him. “Here comes the guy with the production values! So I did the scene again and they hired me to do it! They put me up in a $3,000 a month apartment and I’m on stage for seven minutes, you know? I thought, working in New York is great. I had a wonderful time. Frank was terrific to work with. It was not an entirely successful production for a number of reasons but Frank wasn’t one of them.”

Halfway through the run, Matthews got a call from his agent saying that The Bridge Project was still looking for an American character actor. The debut season of the trans Atlantic collaboration had been postponed a year due to the illness of its star Stephen Dillane’s wife, which turned out to be fortuitous timing for Matthews who had long sought an audition since the project’s initial announcement in spring 2007. He auditioned for Mendes, got a callback and became the only west coast actor hired for this first of three companies that starred Simon Russell Beale, Sinéad Cusack, Richard Easton, Rebecca Hall, Josh Hamilton, Ethan Hawke and Paul Jesson.

Dakin Matthews as Antigonus in The Bridge Project production of The Winter's Tale.
Dakin Matthews as Antigonus in The Bridge Project production of “The Winter’s Tale.”

“I had to be a local hire. Fortunately I still had a month and a half to go on my Roundabout contract. Basically for the entire rehearsal period Roundabout was paying. We closed over Christmas, I flew home for a week and a half, then flew back to open The Cherry Orchard at BAM. We rehearsed the rest of The Winter’s Tale then opened that. For the entire run at BAM, they gave us some little pittance but it wasn’t enough to pay for my housing.”

It did however pay for the rest of the international tour that included residencies at Singapore Repertory Theatre, in Auckland at The EDGE® Performing Arts Centre, in Madrid at Teatro Español, and in Germany at Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen before arriving for a three month season of both plays in rep at The Old Vic. The tour concluded at Epidaurus, Greece as part of the Athens & Epidaurus Festival. “We played in a 2,400 year old theatre with 15,000 people in attendance each night,” said Matthews. “No amplification. It was pretty cool.”

Despite its much hyped, cross-pollinated cast, the tour offered no new theatrical insights. “As Ethan said, the great surprise was that there was no surprise. We just all work. Sam does tend to trust the Brits more than the Americans. Also it happened that other than Ethan, the Brits were playing all the leading roles. The Americans were playing all the supporting roles so it was easier for the critics to say how wonderful the Brits are and how the Americans weren’t doing very much. That is an unfortunate thing that was inescapable.”

As for working with Mendes, Matthews says he loved his rehearsal method. “Sam was very open. He really does love actors. He has this unique rehearsal process where in between the table work, which he did for the first week of each show and the staging, which he started on the third week of each show, he had a second week where the actors basically improvised the entire play without worrying about staging. Without worrying about their character particularly. And he would tell them to swap characters. People tend to get off book very quickly so they weren’t completely improvising.”

Mendes had the actors sit in a large circle on a rug floor and instructed them to get up and show him what the first scene is all about. “He said don’t worry about blocking. We had no set designs. We had no costume designs. We had no notion of what the period was or if there was going to be a change of period. No ideas about his concept particularly. So one got the impression, true or false, the actors actually had input into his final decisions before he made them. Now maybe it was an illusion, a very clever illusion, but I think not. The actors felt much more influential in the creation of the essential spine of these plays than we normally get.”

As for how his globetrotting adventure came to support his Andak family back home, Matthews explains that wife Anne accompanied him throughout the entire tour. “We had a great time. She cooked so we saved a lot of money. We lived on a per diem basically. I never cashed a single check the whole time. That’s why I’m doing this place!” he laughs, gesturing to the theatre. “All of that I just funneled right back into Dakin’s sandbox!”


Feature image of Norman Snow (as the Captain) and Deborah May (as Mirandolina) and Liberty Inn production photos by John DiMita. Dakin Mathews headshot by Keith Jochim. Hitchcock Blonde photo by Ken Howard. King Lear photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons. The Prince of L.A. photo by John Apicella. The Winter’s Tale photo by Joan Marcus.


Deborah Behrens

Deborah Behrens

Deborah is an award-winning arts/entertainment journalist best known for her celebrity profiles. She is the former Editor-in- Chief of LA STAGE Times, the predecessor site to @ This Stage Magazine. Her work has garnered numerous honors including a 2009 Maggie Award, a 2012 National Entertainment Journalism Award and recognition at the 2013 Southern California Journalism Awards. In 2014, she received the Queen of the Angels Award at the 35th Annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards for her contributions to L.A.’s theater community. You can follow her on Twitter @deborahbehrens.