Ian McKellen, who made public his homosexuality in 1989, uses his latest solo performance as a belated local "coming out" party. More relaxed and folksy than the persona who graced the Westwood (now Geffen) Playhouse stage a few years back in his acclaimed "Acting Shakespeare" solo outing, his virtuosity is intact as he chronicles his life onstage and off through brief but tantalizing performance excerpts, culled from such diverse contributors as Shakespeare, William Blake, Tennessee Williams, Armistead Maupin, David Hockney and others. Settled comfortably within Susan Gratch's minimalist but adequate homelike setting, McKellen journeys back to his humble beginnings in Lancashire, England. It is with a sense of regret he admits he exorcised all traces of his telltale lower class accent to emulate the perfectly modulated speaking voices of the great actors of his day, such as Olivier, Gielgud and Redgrave.
Two themes run concurrently throughout McKellen’s gentle onstage meandering: his biography as an actor and his evolving homosexuality, which leads him to become a dedicated advocate for gay and lesbian rights.
Chronicling his boarding school days, his term at Cambridge (in the company of such future media figures as David Frost, Trevor Nunn and Derek Jacobi), his early years as a fledgling professional actor slaving away in the provinces, and his eventual emergence as one of the world’s most renowned actors, McKellen constantly interweaves his growing awareness of his specific sexual preferences into the fabric of his narrative.
He eventually highlights two key events: his friendship with San Francisco-based author Maupin (“Tales of the City) which led to McKellen’s media proclamation in 1987 that he is gay; and his 1991 knighting by Queen Elizabeth II, which served to solidify his standing as an artist regardless of his sexual preference.
Director Gregory Cooke keeps a very loose rein as McKellen nonchalantly interacts with the audience, even to the point of tossing his knightship medal into the front row, allowing audience members to “try it on” and pass it around. But the fun and games for Cooke and McKellen end when McKellen delves into his exquisitely developed repertoire of characters, honed from more than 30 years of stage and film performances.
With awe-inspiring virtuosity, McKellen flows in and out of the poetry of Blake and D.H. Lawrence, King James I’s letter to his homosexual lover, an excerpt from the autobiography of Williams and two riveting scenes from Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.”
The chosen material makes very obvious that McKellen is onstage primarily to heighten our awareness of the difficulties homosexuals have faced throughout history to gain acceptance, dignity and respect. He accomplishes this with devastating effect as he chronicles the 1895 conviction and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde for his homosexual activities and caps the evening with a mesmerizing synopsis of Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 dramatic history of England’s King Edward II, who was assassinated because of his homosexual commitment to his lover Galveston.
McKellen’s intense onstage activism can border on overkill at times, but it hardly matters: The man can act.