Geer Does Lear: Much Ado About the 21st Century Relevancy of a Shakespearean Plot Point
Hark! To paraphrase Juliet: “What light through yonder canyon breaks?” Why, it’s none other than the launching of the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum’s season at its Topanga Canyon outpost, which rather gloriously kicked off June 7 with a production of King Lear, heralding the approach of summer with a quintet of Shakespearean productions to honor the Bard’s 450th birthday.
The Stratford-upon-Avon playwright’s masterpiece has been oft-produced on stage and screen. Theatricum artistic director Ellen Geer has adapted what may well be the most original version of Lear since -- if not the First Folio -- since Jean-Luc Godard’s 1987 film co-starring Woody Allen, Norman Mailer, Burgess Meredith and Molly Ringwald as Cordelia. What makes the Theatricum’s Lear so offbeat is its gender role reversals. Here, the monarch is portrayed by a woman, with Ellen herself in the title role, and Lear’s daughters all played by males: Theatricum veterans Aaron Hendry as Goneril and Christopher W. Jones as Regan, and relative newcomer Dane Oliver as a fresh-faced, sweet if tongue-tied Cordelia.
Now, your humble scribe hastens to add that the above do not perform in drag and do actually play roles that match their offstage sex. The gender reassignment of some of the dramatic personae flows smoothly and in the case of Her Majesty, Britain (where Shakespeare’s tragedy takes place) has had female rulers such as Queen Victoria and both Elizabeths who reigned for long periods, including Buckingham Palace’s current occupant.
On the other hand, that Shakespearean shapeshifter, Ms. Mellora Marshall, once again plays a male character as a man. Last summer, the protean Marshall portrayed the bearded title character in Theatricum’s Merlin, Harbinger of Peace. As Eden (whom Shakespeare called Edgar), Willow Geer also switches gears, as in much of the second act her character masquerades as a male beggar, a disguise necessitated by the treachery of Eden’s half-sister Igraine (Abby Craden plays the character Shakespeare called Edmond), who cravenly tricks their father, the Earl of Gloucester (Alan Blumenfeld), into believing that Eden is plotting against him.
Lear’s charactersarguably commit Western theater’s biggest, most tragic mistakes since Oedipus plucked his eyes out at ancient Greek amphitheaters. Lear’s vanity, puffed up and inflated over the course of a lifetime of being susceptible to flattery as the monarch, leads to a colossal error when it comes to her offspring. Gloucester betrays a similar lapse in judgment. If power corrupts, absolute power corrupts the ego absolutely -- especially of an absolute monarch. It was Shakespeare’s existential genius to make his characters only able to think logically after going mad (paging R.D. Laing!) or able to see clearly after losing one’s eyesight (in what may be the Bard’s reference to Sophocles’ Oedipus the King).
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The white-haired Ellen Geer’s energetic acting is extraordinary, full of vitality that belies and defies her years. To paraphrase the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky: “There’s no white hair in her soul.” Since your scribbler doesn’t get paid by the word, there’s only room to mention a few standouts in this cast of about 35 thespians. Like with Ellen’s performance, this reviewer has never seen Abby Craden do better whilst trodding the boards. Similar to her spell casting, creepy Morgana in last year’s Merlin, Craden’s spiteful, born-out-of-wedlock Igraine is a conniving, cunning schemer, determined to rise on the social totem pole by any means necessary. Romping about the bare stage apparently braless in Topanga, Craden’s character is one of those people who exploit their sexuality in order to attain self-seeking wishes, as she woos both of Lear’s married sons. Craden’s Igraine is sure to give you a migraine. As she says: "Now, gods, stand up for bastards!" indeed.
As the Earl of Gloucester, Alan Blumenfeld is moving as a man who has been blinded -- literally. Willow Geer is largely relegated to the background in Act I but splendidly comes alive in the second act, with scenes her Eden dominates. Depicting Lear’s Fool, Mellora Marshall, as usual, delivers the goods with another uncanny cross-dressing performance in what is a pivotal role, since during Europe’s medieval epoch court jesters were the only subjects allowed to publicly voice critiques of the crown and court. And if ever a crowned head needed a sound tongue lashing (albeit one with its barbs laced with and sugarcoated in humor), it is Lear, whose mistakes of epic proportion in judging character wreak havoc.
Ellen Geer’s and Marshall’s co-direction is likewise inspired, making full use of the Theatricum amphitheater’s space amidst Topanga Canyon’s sylvan glade. With much of the action happening all around you, this is a sort of theatrical version of Cinerama -- and it’s all in 3-D and living color! Lear’s madness scene on a rooftop is stunningly staged (although it had this fan fearing for Geer’s life!) and there is plenty of swordplay onstage and gamboling through the woods, as is this outdoor troupe’s hallmark. Val Miller’s period costuming enhances the ambiance, and it’s interesting to note that this production does not list a set designer per se in the credits. The sparse stage suggests Jerzy Grotowski’s “poor theater” -- but what the boards “lack” are more than made up for through a vivid use of the hilly woods, unified as an organic part of the action.
As this reviewer noted recently in his coverage of The Gondoliers at Sierra Madre Playhouse, it’s fascinating how ideas percolate up out of the primordial ooze of the collective unconscious. Works written centuries ago can take on new meanings and have enhanced relevancy when put into a modern context, striking contemporary chords. Currently, the “republican Monarchy” in Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1889 operetta can refer to today’s income inequality and wealth gap.
Similarly, the intercepting of messages, which plays a key role in Lear -- believed to have opened with Richard Burbage circa 1606 -- has an updated relevance for 21st century auds. Although Lear’s intercepted messages are presumably written on parchment with a quill dipped in ink, and not emails, phone calls, etc., in our time one can relate this plot device to the phone hacking scandal of Rupert Murdoch’s media minions in the UK (even the royals’ phones were allegedly hacked), and to the whole brouhaha surrounding WikiLeaks and l’affaire Edward Snowden, with their releases of classified information. Indeed, the online publication that Glenn Greenwald and his First Look Media partners in thought crime have created is called The Intercept.
In addition to being William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, 2014 is being billed as the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum’s 40th anniversary. Judging by the first play of its season celebrating the Bard, my favorite L.A. theater company proves, once again, that where there’s a will -- or two Wills -- there’s a way.
Lear is being performed in repertory through Oct. 4 along with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing and All’s Well That Ends Well plus Bill Cain’s Equivocation, which imagines a Shakespeare-like playwright writing about Guy Fawkes and England’s 1605 Gunpowder Plot, at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, California, 90290. For repertory schedule and other information call: (310)455-3723 or see: www.Theatricum.com.