A Queen with three sons, two of them ungrateful jerks wed to a pair of domineering Duchesses. An Earl with two daughters, one of them illegitimate and a conniver to boot. Meet Shakespeare Through The Looking Glass as Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum debuts its uniquely intriguing, exquisitely acted, gender-bending take on Shakespeare’s King Lear, retitled simply Lear, directed by and starring Ellen Geer as Queen Lear and Melora Marshall as her Fool.

20140608-155259-57179625 How lucky Geer and Marshall are (and audiences as well) that Good Ol’ Will is in the public domain unlike say David Mamet, who recently shut down a production of Oleanna that dared alter the gender of the play’s female protagonist, regardless of how fascinating that new take on teacher-student sexual harassment might have been.

Fortunately for Theatricum Botanicum, neither Shakespeare nor his estate remain to raise any objections to Queen Lear, and who knows? The Bard and/or his heirs might be more open-minded than Mamet and every bit as excited as L.A. audiences have every right to be at seeing Lear’s male-female dynamics upended by Geer and company.

The plot remains the same one that has compelled Shakespeare lovers for the past 412 years despite some pronoun gender flip-flops, so I won’t spend time synopsizing it, except to say that Lear (whether King or Queen) could easily have inspired sayings in the vein of “There’s nothing worse/more bitter/more disturbing/viler than an ungrateful child.”

Lear_6 Botanicum’s Lear proves thrilling on many levels, beginning with the chance to witness the venerable Geer undertake the title role’s multiple challenges and rewards as she transitions from the majectic royal of the play’s early scenes to the angry madwoman of its second half. And unlike actresses who perform Women’s Shakespeare in male drag, Geer gives us Lear as both woman and mother, thereby adding whole new layers to the role.

The same can be said for Aaron Hendry’s Goneril and Christopher W. Jones’s Regan, both of them terrific, and though the Princes’ perfidy is no different from Shakespeare’s Princesses’, seeing sons betray a mother may be even more horrifying than when daughters turn against a father, and as any soap opera buff can tell you, there is a difference in the way we react to villain vs. villainess.

Precisely for this reason, the sensational Abby Craden gets the evening’s second most rewarding assignment (after Geer’s) in the role of Igraine (originally Edmund), a sensuous she-devil who could give any day-or-nighttime soap opera vixen a run for her money. (Just wait till you see Igraine exerting her sexual power over Goneril and Regan and you’ll see just one reason why this Lear catches fire.)

Lear_7 The Earl Of Gloucester’s gender remains male (and Alan Blumenfeld plays him with power and warmth), but Gloucester’s now father-daughter connections offer an intriguing counterpoint to Lear’s mother-son relationships not found in Shakespeare’s original, and Willow Geer once again demonstrates both acting chops and versatility as the lovely Eden (formerly Edgar), forced by circumstances to feign poverty and madness.

Taylor Jackson Ross and Liz Eldridge ace the now female (and therefore especially plum) roles of the Duchesses of Albany and of Cornwall, and since these are now Strong Women married to Men Of Power, the roles are even richer for the gender switch.

10259912_694369793958039_5913891236882347650_n In roles remaining male, actress Marshall makes for a splendid counterpart to Geer’s Lear as the Queen’s Fool, Frank Weidner is deliciously dastardly as Oswald, and stepping into the (still male) role of Kent, understudy Seta Alexander plays the part with such confidence and panache that you’d swear he’d been doing it all along.

Lear_1 Finally, as good son Cordelian, 2013 Cal State Fresno grad Dane Oliver demonstrates a heady combination of talent, charisma and looks that promise an exciting career ahead.

Supporting roles (some of them also gender-bent) are ably executed by Jonathan Blandino (Gentleman), Anahi Bustillos (Queen Of France), Josh Dawes (Knight), Victoria Hilyard (Doctor), Dimitri Aleman Jones (Herald), Nick Molari (Captain), Wendy Pigott (Old Woman), Timothy Portnoy (Messenger), and Charline Su (Duchess Of Burgundy), though Bustilos and Su have been directed to play their roles with such thick French accents as to render Shakespeare’s words virtually incomprehensible.

10364199_10103201866126497_8038033661928799546_n Program credits (and kudos) go out to ensemble members Elizabeth Birmingham, Michael Carroll, Clayton Cook, Alexandra Elam, Marqueta Floyd, Verne Graham, Elisabet Johannesdottir, Kendall Linzee, Timothy Roscoe, Fred Smith, and Hunter C. Smith as assorted courtiers, soldiers, and servants, with understudy Jordan Klomp joining the ensemble at the performance reviewed.

Co-directors’ Marshall and Geer staging makes inspired use of every single hill, dale, nook, cranny, rooftop, balcony, alcove, and any other spot Theatricum Botanicum’s outdoor Topanga setting has to offer, with lighting designer Zach Moore finding ingenious ways to illuminate them all. (Unfortunately, those production stills taken in broad daylight do not reflect Lear’s striking nighttime look.)

Hendry doubles as fight choreographer, which in this case means some exciting swordplay. (Kudos to the adapters for figuring out how to retain a man-on-man a duel which wouldn’t be nearly as believable if it were Igraine and Eden duking it out.)

Adding to the production’s overall excellence are Val Miller’s marvelous period costumes, Marshall McDaniel’s stirring original music, Ashton Williams’ multitude of properties, and Ian Flanders and McDaniel’s expert sound design.

Blandino is assistant director. Kim Cameron is stage manager and Williams is assistant stage manager.

Another reviewer described Theatricum Botanicum’s Lear as one that “won’t come around again,” and while it’s true that we may not see Ellen Geer undertake the title role a second time (though who’s to say there won’t be a return engagement), I would humbly suggest that Geer and Marshall copyright their adaptation and make it available to other adventurous Shakespeare companies.

For those who’ve seen enough King Lear’s to last them a lifetime, this (Queen) Lear provides more than ample reason to come back for more.

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

–Steven Stanley
August 9, 2014
Photos: Ian Flanders

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