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Culver City

The Actor’s Gang ~ ‘King O’Leary’ ~ Culver City

King O'Leary ~ Saturdays and Sundays in August at 11AM @ 9070 Venice Blvd. ~ FREE

One afternoon in Old Havana,  I huddled in a barroom along with a dozen others in the midst of a vengeful downpour. From our dry perch, we watched a skinny drunken man with a mustache stumble down the cobblestone street and pause in the slanted rain. Screaming and shouting at the sky until his veins struggled to escape his neck, he was knocked down by the elements. Each time he slipped, he would pick himself up again, defiant in the rain, and straining. His heavy drenched wife-beater started sliding off his thin frame, but soused and insane, he kept on in one of the most tortured physical displays I've witnessed. Knocked down again and again by the merciless ferocity of nature, he fought just as relentlessly with the invisible demons blocking his path.

King Lear, lost and stripped in the wilderness, has an equally powerful moment in his eponymous play. He is no longer king with a castle, or father to three doting girls, but a lone fool among battering showers and haunted winds that fight around and within him, clawing desperately at his buried soul. Whether reading the play's text or soaking in Kurosawa's lush Samurai masterpiece Ran (a twist on Lear and Japanese myth with a dose of Lady Macbeth), or even finding parallels in other plays, this moment hits me hardest of any, cutting through the postures of identity and into the tragedy of an identity lost. In the end, whether we are kings, stars or beggars, we are naked and we are alone. King Lear is the tragedy of fooling yourself with material wealth, with yes-men, and self-grandeur, and the challenge of finding truth beneath life's many facades. But that's King Lear, and this is King O'Leary!

If life has taught me anything, it's to turn tragedy into comedy, something The Actor's Gang has mastered in transforming Lear into O'Leary, a free weekend production in the park for families which gleefully melds Shakespeare with Pee Wee's Playhouse and a demented Howdy Doody Show episode. The talented Actor's Gang cast becomes a living, breathing, mad-capped cartoon, and like Shrek or Toy Story, manages to keep adults laughing longer than the kids, with rapid-fire riffs on pop culture and sly bawdiness. All this just to warm up for their afternoon matinees of Bury the Dead, an anti-warfare play currently showing in the Ivy Substation, featuring some of these here same actors.

Lear is the story of a ruler who finds he's "too old to cut the mustard anymore" and divides his kingdom among his daughters, splitting the lands between the two who flatter him with words, while exiling the one who loves him but speaks not a word of praise. King O'Leary sets the show's themes of greed in the Old West, specifically a prospector's boom town.

The wacky cast of bananas, from Lear's homely, wicked daughters (one of whom is a massive bearded man in a dress and Burger King crown) to a pompodoured paramour from "Bastardistan," play out a quick 45-minute version of the epic with a mixture of old English couplets, 'aw shucks Hee-Haw-style tomfoolery, and modern day poop jokes...and as hilarious as the action is, there is nothing funnier than watching little children react to a surprise poop joke.

The cast worked hard to keep my eyes off of the Westside MILFS in the house (see above), and are a "hoot" to follow as they zip on and off the stage, up the centerpiece fig tree, and beyond, "hollerin" and "a"-howling and such, spinning clever takes on contemporary culture, with an acoustic version of "Crank Dat Souljaboy" to top it off during their finale. Other wild "git"-ups include a costumed buffalo possibly thrown out of Frontierland for tripping face and a couple of real, live actual children themselves playing the part of exploited immigrants working in the wicked daughters' mines.

Steven M. Porter is a groovy, freewheeling O'Leary with the power and presence necessary to play a cocky king. He also does a nice right-turn into madness without scaring the kiddies. Brian Kimmet plays O'Leary's fool sidekick with wide-eyed innocence, allowing the lunacy around him to eventually make his fool the straight man to the wickedness in his world. Angela Berliner embodies rosy-cheeked, honey-natured cunning and do-goodership as O'Leary's daughter, and Chris Schultz is fun to watch playing the El Vez-esque Lothario stuck between two gross paramours, joining O'Leary's daughters in taking the insanity bigger and bigger. All have rolls that demand exaggerated caricature and the whole cast has a helluva lot of fun making wicked more wicked and sweet the sweetest, and it makes sense that the house follows.

I dragged myself into the park knowing the Actor's Gang's awesome standards and because I love the darker side of works like Lear. At first I wondered if I was going to be able to sit through the production, which seemed to start like typically bad children's theater, all twinkling eyes and syrupy voices. Though this is a family show through and through, the Gang keeps their tongues held in their cheeks while hitting Shakespeare's major themes and playing cowboy for the kiddies' delight. Throwing candy at these wee yard apes also seems to help.

As the lunacy and shenanigans took root, I figured my beloved intense rain scene would probably not come up, but there it landed at the show's peak, a Wagnerian salvo rising from nowhere as Lear shouts in the face of a Supersoaker artillery hosing him down, stripping him past his mustache. Lear sputters and melts, making way for a quick and easy reconciliation with his one true daughter before confronting a final challenge involving tar and feathers. It's cute, it's funny, and it's tied up neatly and as bloodless as a day at the park should, minus a plucked-out eyeball that goes rolling across the stage.

Props also goes to the crew's drummer, who out-Whites Meg in her ferocious one-woman-band, pounding skins and maintaining a visible emotional connection to the action on the stage. She keeps pace as a half-forum, pigtails no less.  Sigh.

So shit, whether chuckling at Leonardo DiCaprio's acting or laughing alongside the Actor's Gang, Shakespeare's tragedies hardly have to be taken seriously! Next weekend, bring someone's kids, swipe someone's pic-a-nic basket and prepare to smile like your hookup at the dentist's office has her hand on the nitrous tank.

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