If like this reviewer you’ve never seen a show at The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, then you are in for a treat, particularly if Moliere’s Tartuffe is your first exposure to this rustic gem of a an outdoor theater.

Located in the hills of Topanga Canyon about halfway between Malibu and the Valley, Theatricum Botanicum stages works by Shakespeare, other classical playwrights, and a contemporary piece or two in a summer slate of shows running in repertory from early June to very early October. A huge company of actors and apprentices make appearances in several shows each, this year’s season completed by The Merry Wives Of Windsor, Richard III, the world premiere of Rose Cottages, a solo piece entitled My Name Is Rachel Corrie, and perennial Theatricum favorite A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

As adapted and directed by Ellen Geer (daughter of Theatricum founder Will Geer and mother of its star Willow), Tartuffe 2011 is a thorough delight and a couldn’t-be-better introduction to both Theatricum Botanicum and the 17th Century author of The Misanthrope, The School for Wives, The Miser, The Imaginary Invalid, and The Bourgeois Gentleman. Under Geer’s inspired direction, this Tartuffe proves the very definition of classic over-the-top French farce, at the same time making still relevant points about the hypocrisy, greed, and corruption of (at least certain members of) the clergy.

Tartuffe’s titular character, played with consummate flair by a superb Aaron Hendry, has infiltrated himself into the good graces of Orgon (a terrific Ted Barton) and his mother Madame Pernelle (the divine Katherine Griffith in classic battleaxe mode). This former vagrant turned pious fraud has more than mischief in mind. He plans not only to seduce Orgon’s wife and daughter but to take ownership of his host’s entire fortune and property in the process.

Orgon’s family members are, not surprisingly, concerned about Tartuffe’s influence over their patriarch and grand-mère. These include Orgon’s shapely young wife Elmire (a delightful, voluptuous Misha Bouvion), his brother-in-law Cléante (a hilariously bombastic Alan Blumenfeld), his daughter Marianne (charming ingénue Joanna Bateman), his son Damis (fabulous understudy Jonathan Blandino), and Marianne’s intended Valere (handsome, dashing Jackson McCord Thompson). Observing and commenting on all of the above is sassy, saucy housemaid Dorine (Geer granddaughter Willow, stealing every scene she’s in and deservedly so).

Tartuffe at Theatricum Botanicum is presented as the original was, in the presence of King Louis IV (portrayed by an audience member in crown and cape), Moliere (Barton) explaining to us and to His Majesty that what we are to see is the play’s third rewrite, the church having vetoed earlier versions.

Director Geer keeps her entire cast on the same flamboyantly farcical page. Servants Kelly Derouin, Leah Gutentag, Sydney Blair, and Liz Eldridge (as Flipote) do bangup supporting work as does police officer William Reinbold, with Bill Durham getting a record number of laughs per second in his cameo as the foppishest bailiff ever to mince across a stage. (Watch how Durham keeps his feet in fourth position whenever standing still.)

Laughs come virtually nonstop, and nowhere more than in one of the wildest would-be seductions ever, with Elmire contriving to get Tartuffe to put the moves on her as her husband waits patiently (albeit uncomfortably) under the table on which the planned seduction is to take place.

Music arranger Cody T. Gillette (as Tartuffe’s servant Laurent) provides impeccable harpsichord accompaniment to the ten songs which have been added to this production (music by director Geer, lyrics by Peter Alsop), the entire cast vocalizing and harmonizing quite marvelously indeed.

Val Miller’s costumes deliciously evoke 17th Century France. Zachary Moore’s lighting design and Ian Flanders’ sound design are both first-rate as are Sarah M. Sowell’s contributions as properties master. Kim Cameron is stage manager, Amanda McRaven assistant director, and Hector Machado assistant stage manager.

Plan to arrive early and picnic under the afternoon or evening sky before the show starts—as close to curtain time as you’ll find anywhere in L.A. Note: Only water is allowed inside the amphitheater.

Tartuffe may have been an imposter, but Theatricum Botanicum is the real thing, and ought to be on everyone’s must-do list when summer rolls around, especially with as delectable a treat as Tartuffe on the menu.

The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga.

–Steven Stanley
August 28, 2011
Photos: Miriam Geer

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