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Daddy Dearest

Lynn Redgrave comes both to praise her father, and to bury him

It's Lynnie's turn now. The baby of an Olympian acting family -- most especially Shakespearean actor and heartthrob Sir Michael Redgrave -- Lynn Redgrave tells the story of her clan in the lively and engaging Shakespeare for My Father, a touring one-woman show now playing at the Alley.

Dressed in stagehand black, Lynn play-acts her life more or less chronologically from the day she was born to the day in 1985 when her father died, victim of a long decline brought on by the Parkinson's disease that rendered him first unable to memorize new lines and then unable to perform at all. Other members of the Redgrave family figure in as bit parts -- from sister Vanessa ("the Marxist realist") to their scalawag of a grandfather, Roy Redgrave, who billed himself as the "acting cock of the north" and ditched his family for a film career in Australia. But it is really Lynn Redgrave and her father who take center stage. Sir Michael's presence is manifested by a photo of him as a bare-chested Antony projected, screen-idol size, on a blank, black wall behind the spare set on which daughter Lynn performs.

And a bravura performance it is. From the opening moments, when she strides onto the stage, sizing it up and finding it to her liking, Redgrave makes herself at home with a self-possession and delight that one guesses weren't possible when her father was himself stalking across stages. Sometimes acting as narrator, sometimes athletically acting out many parts, Redgrave plays, struts, gesticulates, moans, prances. It all comes across like a high-spirited internal monologue, how you would explain your life to an engrossed imaginary listener willing to let you set the record straight, for once. In this situation you can give yourself all the good lines, and upstage whomever you want.

Redgrave knows she's her father's daughter, the daughter of an actor. She just doesn't think he knew it. For as much as this play is about fathers and daughters, it's also about actors -- a houseful of them, generations of them -- and about how actors live, which is: they live their lives on stage. At least, that's how Redgrave portrays Sir Michael. As an eight-year-old, she fantasizes about going on stage with him because then she could get to know him -- or at least get to know the character he plays. Offstage, the roles still clung: "Daddy behaves completely differently depending on which play he's in," Redgrave tells her audience. "Comedies are best." Well, if Sir Michael only lived on stage via his magnetic performances, daughter Lynn has gone him one better: she not only lives on stage, she puts her own life on stage that she might fully claim it.

Guided by the deft direction of John Clark, Redgrave's at her best when she's leaping about, playing the many characters -- familial, famous and fictional -- that have come together in her life: herself as a girl; herself as a grown woman; sister Vanessa; her parents; her grandmother; Laurence Olivier; Richard Burton; Prospero; Cordelia; Lear; Hamlet; and on and on. While some of the stouter Shakespearean monologues may drag for audiences not as intimate with them as were the Redgraves, when Lynn does a turn as both Juliet and the Nurse, whirling back and forth between crabbed old hag and fresh young lover, it's an amazing sight. And not only can Redgrave act, she can do impressions. The show's highlight comes when, in a send-up of Noel Coward directing Maggie Smith and Dame Edith "a handbag!" Evans in Hay Fever, Redgrave makes the two headstrong actresses play off one another like a ferret and a high-strung poodle.

The wry assuredness and mastery of the likable Lynn we see belie the sickly, sour child she tells us she used to be. And it's as this simpering "glum one," resentful at being abandoned by her glamorous daddy, that Redgrave stumbles. Shakespeare for My Father is at its most tenuous when it treads the touchy ground of parental accusation and Redgrave strays toward the dread region of oh-pitiful-me-ness. When she yells, "Speak to me, Dad!" to the image that she has projected up on her stage, it feels forced, like she's begging the question.

Of course, dialogues with dead parents are about as poignant as the human repertoire gets, and many audience members may well come unglued if they, too, had remote fathers. Some will view Redgrave as striking a courageous blow for ignored daughters everywhere. But in a way, she's begging acceptance from the audience in lieu of the acceptance she feels she didn't get from her parent; it's the classic actor's neurosis. Even upon arising the day of her father's funeral, she flashes back to how he didn't sit through her first high school play. When her face contorts in horror, is it at a dead father, or an inattentive one? As Redgrave recited Portia's speech about the quality of mercy, I detected a certain mercy missing from her performance. She says she forgives, but I wonder. She's on that road, yes, but she can still sound bitter, petulant and occasionally petty.

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