Michael Kahn hasn't much time for scholars who argue that "King Lear" is such a masterpiece it's virtually impossible to perform. The Shakespeare Theatre artistic director has directed the play twice this decade--in 1991 with Fritz Weaver as Lear, and now with Ted van Griethuysen.

Kahn agrees that no one production of any Shakespeare play can unearth all the layers of meaning. "But I do believe that seeing ['King Lear'] live, seeing it with real people, is where it belongs," he said last week. "I think Shakespeare was writing very deeply about fathers and children, and about what people had to go through in order to find their humanity. I think it was a subject bigger than even he understood."

Kahn's latest take on the play is intimate, psychological and contemporary. "I was an only child and never really had a big family, and this was an opportunity for me . . . to explore the issue of getting older and the issue of families," he said. "I wanted to make a very personal play and not an epic play." Audience members have written, Kahn said, "telling me this helped them understand their aged father, whom they'd just put in a nursing home. . . . That's what we wanted to do."

Some look for post-apocalyptic meaning in Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili's steely, industrial sets and 20th-century costumes (from World War I to punk), but Kahn said his own intentions were far simpler. "I didn't really care about history," he explained. "I thought they were all in purgatory, to tell you the truth; some horrible place [where] they had to go through a lot in order to emerge as real people, as humans with real human qualities. So the costumes and the scenery were modern, but I didn't want them to be of a particular period." The modern feeling, he said, was "so people would actually listen to it freshly."

The most obvious innovation in Kahn's new "Lear" is a deaf Cordelia, whose lines are spoken by the Fool. Cordelia's actually onstage only a few minutes, and Kahn said his idea was to flesh out her role. "I think that Cordelia, because of this, becomes a real presence, and when Lear finally learns to communicate with her--and that is when he begins to make up signs to talk to her . . . I think it's fun."

Kahn found directing this "Lear" "very complicated and emotionally exhausting." He calls it "a titanic play. I don't think I'll ever do it again. I think two times in my life is enough."

Guy Stuff

In his one-man show, "The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron?," actor-writer Robert Dubac plays a well-meaning but unenlightened guy named Bobby who learned "what women want" from guys even more chauvinistic than he. He plays them, too--six in all. Dubac told Backstage over coffee last week that he based them on "the kind of guys that girls [who] were friends of mine went out with . . . but love is blind."

A Los Angeles-based actor, Dubac had tried his hand at stand-up comedy but felt more comfortable telling stories than rattling off one-liners. He's performed "The Male Intellect" for the past few years, with extended runs in Denver, Chicago and Boston. It opens at the Warner Theatre on Oct. 12 for a short week, then he's off to Toronto.

With this comic conceit that he knows is "not really a full play," Dubac said he hopes to attract thirty- and forty-somethings who don't normally go to the theater and make them realize that there is such as thing as "the guy who can watch football and see a play." Unlike comic Rob Becker's "Defending the Caveman," Dubac's show has a plot, and his hero evolves--upwardly. But like Becker, he reckons he induces many elbow jabs of recognition into the ribs of dates or mates.

Dubac got married when he was first performing "The Male Intellect." He credits his wife, actress Lauren Sinclair (who is the recorded feminine voice in the play), with enriching his subtext. "I tell people I wrote it--and she explained it to me."

Home Improvement

Jack Evans, the Ward 2 D.C. Council member who worked to keep Arena Stage in Southwest, last Friday encouraged residents of the area to see more plays at the theater now that its board has decided to keep it in the neighborhood. Evans made his case at a meeting of his Southwest Task Force citizens group in Arena's Fichandler lobby. He cited statistics that showed woefully low Arena attendance by those who live nearby.

Arena board members and staffers, no longer caught up in financial projections for a new downtown building, are now thinking about how best to renovate their longtime home and become more involved in the neighborhood, according to Steven R. Bralove, board president.

Meanwhile, about a mile from Arena, arts activist Bill Wooby is forging ahead on converting the old Randall Junior High School on I Street SW near South Capitol Street into the nonprofit Millennium Arts Center. Though the aged building needs $2 million to $3 million in basic renovations, Wooby said, he expects to have rehearsal space available by the end of November (Ford's Theatre and Washington Opera have expressed interest), and the first art exhibit on view in January, with an unadorned performance space open soon after that. The grand opening won't happen for a year, he said.

Follow Spots

* Rhea Seehorn received Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's first annual Grainne Cassidy Award at a gala 20th-season benefit on Sept. 27. The cash award, named for the longtime Woolly actress who died two years ago, is for "an emerging theater artist who has had an outstanding impact on Woolly Mammoth." The ebullient Seehorn has starred there in "The Big Slam," "Brimstone and Treacle," "Dead Funny" and "Freedomland." She's currently the daughter in Arena Stage's "Hot 'n' Throbbing."

* Studio Theatre ended its 1999 fiscal year with a $350,000 surplus, its staff announced recently. Most of it will go toward the Burn the Mortgage project, a goal set for Studio's Millennium 2000 season. The surplus was the result of higher than anticipated income from subscription and individual ticket sales during the 1998-99 season and tuition from the Acting Conservatory. Because of the success of plays such as "The Steward of Christendom" and "The Old Settler," box office revenues exceeded expectations by more than 50 percent, theater staffers say, with subscriptions representing 90 percent of capacity and a yearly renewal rate of 80 percent.

* A theatrical grudge match switched advantage last week during a night softball game between Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theatre. The Bad News Bards (as in Shakespeareans) reversed last year's defeat by stomping Zel's (as in Arena founder Zelda Fichandler) Angels by a whopping 24-8. The Bards' MVP was actor Andrew Long, currently playing that nasty Edmund in "King Lear."

CAPTION: Rhea Seehorn, recipient of Woolly Mammoth's Grainne Cassidy Award, with Colin Lane in Arena's "Hot 'n' Throbbing."

CAPTION: Ted van Griethuysen and Monique Holt in Michael Kahn's second "King Lear."