Orson Welles couldn't have asked for a better script. In 1938, his War of the Worlds radio show set the eastern seaboard on its collective ear. The classic yarn about a bunch of persnickety Martian invaders-aired the night before Halloween-is the stuff of modern folklore, having inspired a host of evacuations, several suicides and a handful of grassroots rushes to arms.
Fade to 1993, when actor Armin Shimerman would spawn a real-life encounter straight out of Welles' dog-eared playbook. An earthquake had rudely mobilized L.A.'s community of early risers, and after a call from home, a dutiful Shimerman jetted from Paramount Studios for the San Fernando Valley to check on his wife and their dogs.
In his haste, he left work made up as his character Quark, the cantankerous Ferengi bartender from TV's Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The churning urban landscape, that bony, stratified skull and Shimerman's modest stature (he's 5-foot-6) registered with at least one poor sap.
"His jaw dropped and his eyes glazed over," Shimerman told CityBeat with a straight face, "and then he just sort of flagged me through the intersection. I'm sure he thought it was an alien invasion, especially at 4:45 in the morning."
Shimerman has a trunkload of anecdotes like that, and they're all great. As often as not, his trunk gathers a certain quota of dust from William Shakespeare's roily Elizabethan England; at this moment in San Diego theater history, that's especially fortunate. The Lakewood, N.J., native is here through April 17 to play the Fool as the San Diego Repertory Theatre takes a turn at Shakespeare's legendary King Lear. The heavily hyped show is in previews and opens Friday, March 25, with Rep artistic director Sam Woodhouse in the title role.
And while his stage character shares plenty with the brassy Quark, Shimerman's off-camera persona embodies the thing about how you shouldn't judge a book. Quark is a sawed-off, gravelly, obnoxious butt-cheek of a guy, checking his net worth every three seconds and bent on maintaining his foul comportment "'til the day I die." Shimerman, 55, is warm, reflective and enormously intelligent, like the highly sought-after Shakespeare cognoscenti he is.
One man, two spheres of influence and a vaguely encyclopedic familiarity with each-the contrast blurs as Shimerman gives the crazy ol' Bard a place alongside Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Elizabeth Moon. In other words, Shakespeare and sci-fi have more in common than one might assume.
Prospero's magic island in The Tempest; the gnarly Forest of Arden in As You Like It; the sprawling rural stretches in A Midsummer Night's Dream: All contain the earmarks of makeshift planets and satellites, Shimerman said. And to boot, he added, post-Copernican theory about the earth's solar orbit had Elizabethan audiences looking to the heavens with fresh insights and eyes.
"There was a comet during Shakespeare's lifetime," Shimerman explained, "that was so bright that you could see it in the daytime for about three months (Bill was writing Timon of Athens when Halley's Comet visited the neighborhood in 1607). It was enormously bright, and it was taken by the Court of [Queen] Elizabeth [I] to mean that Elizabeth's reign was going to be incredible, which it turned out to be."
Shakespeare's characters tend to be equally drawn to other worlds. Figures from Macbeth's trio of witches to Julius Caesar's soothsayer to Hamlet himself betray the author's flights of heavenly fancy.
"When beggars die," Caesar's wife Calpurnia declares, "there are no comets seen. The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes." That passage colors a celestial event that in real life lit the skies over ancient Rome for seven days in July of 44 B.C.-the year Julius was slain.
"Shakespeare looked to the stars," Shimerman said, "and he lived in his imagination. Science fiction is about living in your imagination. Most of Shakespeare's plays are about hope, and science fiction is always about hope. It's about how much better the future will be or, in a fantasy world, how different and how intriguing that world is."
That insight touches the mad, tragic Lear in a story from antiquity. The plot is based on a pre-Rome Anglo ruler named Lyrr, whose legacy dates to 800 B.C. He's a consummate ironhanded monarch tasked with leading both his country and his prominent family.
He's nearly 80, a stratospheric age in Elizabethan terms, and he's complacently basking in the illusion of his subjects' adulation. But as his three daughters assume his land and authority, he's helpless to stem their abuse of power. He spends the play mulling his legacy, finding his only comfort in the ugly truth behind it. He'll lose his emotional bearings and regain them, decrying the brutal deaths on his watch (one guy has his eyes gouged away). He'd mistaken the power of his office for the approval of the masses.
The Fool is the jester to Lear and his daughter Cordelia (played here by Marielle Heller). He derides his bosses routinely, as if to mirror their frailties; at some points, he seriously pushes the envelope through his bitchy disrespect. "If thou wert my fool, nuncle [uncle]," he spits at Lear, "I'd have thee beaten for being old before thy time."
Lear, of course, wouldn't dare retaliate. He needs the Fool as a tenuous reminder of his humanness. For director Todd Salovey, that makes the Fool's transition into the popular climate a no-brainer.
"The Fool is very much that character that you see so often in science fiction," Salovey said-"the strange outsider who's the sage truthsayer. Just like [Quark], the Fool becomes a model of a lot of the characters in Lear who are willing to be honest, brutal and sometimes disgusting because they believe that they're right."
That belief is contagious, its shaky foundation laid well beyond the stagehouse door.
"It's easy for us as a superpower and as a booming city," Salovey said, "to feel that we're completely in the right. The story of King Lear is a humbling reminder of the limitations of our human side. What's remarkable about Shakespeare is that his greatest plays have resonances to so many different times and places, and they feel as though they were written for that time and place. I feel that today, people are having a quest to get to our essential [natures], which Lear does."
Enter Eastlake High School juniors Elliott Humphrey and Laura Lindsay. Earlier this month, they participated in a program called Lear on the Border, wherein the Rep brought Lear excerpts to about 2,000 students in the Sweetwater Union School District (Eastlake is in Chula Vista). The event was funded through a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and included study guides, workshops and student-prepared passages.
Humphrey, 16, strutted his chops as the Earl of Kent, a nobleman and devoted supporter of the king. Lindsay, 17, tried her hand as the Doctor, Cordelia's physician, who slips Lear a sleeping pill in an attempt to restore his sanity. Their 15 minutes of fame lasted more like three apiece, but the experience yielded a solid parallel from Lindsay.
"Lear is really detached from his daughters," she said, "whereas in a realistic place, a father would really know them. Sometimes, [teachers] don't know their students; otherwise, [they'd] probably act a little bit more fair."
Humphrey's take took a more global tack. And he articulated it with the clarity of a seasoned master.
"Pop culture," he said, "is deemed as something so original and something so outstanding and avant-garde sometimes. It isn't. If you really read into literature and if you really read into Shakespeare, you'll find references left and right to [popular stigma]. Although the medium is different, it's the same exact type of humor that we'd like to contrive into-sarcastic humor from the Fool; straightforward, blunt characters like Kent. Watch TV shows today, and there's, like, all these people like that-the wise-asses and stuff."
Oh, how right he is. Lear's autocratic nature probably reminds Humphrey and Lindsay of a teacher or two whose arrogance was a lot like another major Shimerman character: the infamous Principal Snyder on TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer who detested Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her friends even before he'd met them. "If there's trouble," he'd snort of Buffy, "she's behind it." Buffy quickly returned serve, dismissing her principal as a "stupid little troll."
The print media would go Buffy one better. "The New York Times," Shimerman explained, "said of my character that I was the worst monster on the show-worse than any vampire-because people like me actually existed."
Shimerman's stint on Buffy ended when Snyder flipped the mayor of Sunnyvale a ration and hizzoner changed into a demon and ate him. The kids went crazy.
Unlike the detestable Snyder, Shimerman shows genuine concern for the adolescent mindset.
"When we're teenagers," he said in a near-whisper, "we believe that half the world doesn't understand what we're going through. Lear is very demonstrative of that. The world does not understand what Lear's going through, and the world rejects him. He sort of survives that rejection. I know there are elements of adolescent and young people's behavior that emulate that-the idea that you're an outcast and you're trying to make a new world in this old world. I think any young person can identify with that."
Shimerman graduated with a bachelor's degree in English from UCLA. He's worked in San Diego before, having appeared in locally filmed movies and at The Old Globe Theatre. He has more than 60 TV appearances to his credit, has performed everywhere except the Ross Ice Shelf, has taught Shakespearean acting from L.A. to Minneapolis, has served on the board of the Screen Actors Guild and has written a series of Trek-based novels, including The 34th Rule. That story examines No. 34 of the nearly 300 Ferengi Rules of Acquisition: "War is good for business."
The sad fact is that that axiom absolutely applies today. The stock market is at its highest point in a while, and America is at war. The same turbulence colored Deep Space Nine, and in just as timely a fashion-the show, Shimerman noted, was inspired by the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s. The Srebrenica massacre, the despotic rule of Slobodan Milosevic: A wealth of travesties lined the writers' crimson pool of ideas amid Wall Street's almost beatific surge.
But if television heralds the worst in man's endeavors, so too does it communicate a future rich in challenge and hope.
"DS9 is different from the other [Star Trek entries]," Shimerman concluded, "because the other ones boldly went somewhere. We boldly stayed in one place and learned to live with each other. In a sense, Lear does that, too. He boldly learns to live with everybody-not only with the royals but with the beggars, from the street people to the aristocrats."
If he'd made that prediction to Lear's face, the big psycho likely would have planted a size 11 where no man has gone before. Then again, everybody thought Copernicus theorized on the order of the planets in between hits of ecstasy, yet he was right all along. Our world and its people shape and reshape routinely and with fierce autonomy, their cosmic legacies etched for all time in our most accessible literature.
"Dim and wonderful," one such item reads, "is the vision I've conjured... / Of life spreading slowly from this little seedbed of the solar system / Throughout the inanimate vastnesses of sidereal space. / A remote dream?"
Hardly. There's an ocean of stuff out there, and it exists simply because people imagine it. That cool passage says as much-but this time, the words aren't from Shakespeare. They're not even by Copernicus. They're out of Howard Koch's adaptation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, the very same script Orson Welles consigned to myth with his miraculous performance. The fact that they read like Bill sustains Humphrey's astute assertion-that pop enlightenment is only as pop as we make it. With San Diego's opening of King Lear, our cultural boundaries dissolve anew, in lofty deference to the human experience and to the author who championed its nature like no one before or since.King Lear runs through April 17 at the Lyceum, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown. $26.50-$41.50. Ask about group discounts. 619-544-1000.