A rippled mirror – Lear at Theatricum Botanicum

Ellen Geer and Christopher W. Jones - via broadwayworld.com

Ellen Geer and Christopher W. Jones – via broadwayworld.com

Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum kicks off 2014 as it did 2003, with Lear. This edition differs from the prior with substantial gender-flipping in the key roles leading to a headscratcher of a production of one of Shakespeare’s most revered creations.

Revered or not, I’ve found it very hard to like King Lear. It’s been years since I’ve read it, it takes me longer to get in sync with it each time I see it, I am never sure what’s been cut, and if the actors aren’t taking liberties with the text. It is hard to sympathize with the loud, vain, and brutish Lear, cravenly bartering his affections among his children, wanting the mythical 110% from all of them. Gloucester likewise torments one son in favor of another as if either child had any say in his ancestry. The Mad Tom scenes always drag yet there is no way to eliminate them. And on a purely practical note, I’ve never understood Lear’s universe. A kingdom and victories large enough to make him a force. Small enough for messengers to cross it instantly and open enough that blinded men can stagger through it purposefully.

But when Ellen Geer plays the title role in a gender-adjusted adaptation, attention must be paid. New problems compound the old but there are also aspects of the production that amply justify the choices. It is one of the juiciest lead roles in the repertory and no one can fault the formidable Geer for wanting to play it. Shepherding a non-profit theatre in Los Angeles, especially over decades, requires regal temperament and comfort with intrigue. In her notes, co-Director Melora Marshall discusses the inching toward gender equality in our time and wants to give the feminine element, for good and for bad, some emphasis. The three Lear daughters become sons, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelian. Gloucester’s Edmund and Edgar become daughters Igraine and Eden. Everybody plays The Fool, sometime and Marshall plays it for at least the second time as she did back in 2003.

Theatricum’s prior version played it straight-up with Steven Matt as an ultimately affecting Lear and William Dennis Hunt bringing his customary depth to Gloucester. Here, the additional layers on an already difficult play are ambitious and come at a price. Geer is flighty and imperious in turns, often pulling phrases in the family style. Performers who’ve been with the company a while (Aaron Hendry as Goneril, Gerald C. Rivers as Kent, Alan Blumenfeld as Gloucester) know how to play off of this. To its credit, Theatricum gives new actors a chance to grow over the seasons, but blending with the established ensemble takes time. There are a hodge-podge of accents and deliveries, intrinsic and directed, which combined with opening night led to rough patches. Every faithful production clocks in at three or more hours yet every one of them feels rushed. There’s so much going on and so much ground to cover that there is seldom time to savor the poetry. The first act consequently drags although there are some fine moments. Goneril, Regan (Christopher W. Jones), and Igraine (Abby Craden) are almost sympathetic for a time. If your father routinely proclaims your bastardy, he’s got a few things coming to him. Who would want a parent, loved or not, and a hundred followers running amok in the house on alternate months? And it takes until the end of Act 1, with two men alternately belittling, making decisions for, and finally casting out, their elderly mother that the Geer/Marshall seed germinates.

Act 2 starts with a bang. Everyone knows Lear in the storm. Few can be prepared for how it comes here with Queen and her Fool desperately hanging onto their sanity, each other, and a nearby tree. It puts Geer and her voice at least forty feet from the front row but it packs a wallop on many levels. Willow Geer keens as Mad Tom but pulls it back and dials up unexpected accents and depth while leading and teasing Dad to the chalky cliff. Taylor Jackson Ross brings quiet dignity to the Duchess of Albany, Goneril’s wife.  This production uses every square inch of playable space on the premises and a few that probably have not been used before.  Stagecraft is spare except for costumes (Val Miller) and muted background music (Ian Flanders and Marshall McDaniel).  It still isn’t clear how time and space are bridged so quickly in this tenth century England and the superluminal speed of the treachery and intrigue jars as always. There may be no answer short of adding another hour of business which would blow budgets and further reduce the audience.

The second act does spur thought on the play beyond the title character’s downfall. What will people do when inequity is the norm, enforced by law, and predetermined winners take all? That situation is not far removed from the present day. The short answer is that those forced to play this debauched game will play it to win and will take their vengeance on the losers. Making the Gloucester children female is deft and not a given – father is still a father so it could have gone either way. In this mirror universe, women hold substantial position and authority. But, as in our own universe not everything is symmetric on reflection – it is not a complete matriarchy. The Lear boys are all slated to get something and hold it as their own. The only question is who will be first among the equals. Igraine gets nothing and an illegitimate daughter in that society has few prospects for marrying out of her predicament. So, she attacks. (Queen) Lear wants to give up just a little control and live out her years on her own terms.   Don’t we all?   Can’t be done.  It is all or nothing and nothing is what’s left of her as she loses her family, fortune, mind, and finally her life. Rightly or wrongly, such a fall of a mother figure hits us differently – Mother’s Day is after all a much bigger deal than Father’s Day.

It’s tough to say whether this should be anyone’s first Lear. In that respect, conventional stagings  may be a better choice. For those familiar with the work, the company, and who are willing to consider other elements to the story, it is definitely worth a visit.

in repertory through 28 September 2014
Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd
Topanga, CA 90290
(310) 455-3723 box office
Purchase online at: https://theatricum.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0OA000000EjJuFMAV

For a distinctly Britisher take on the play, consider the Talking Lear playlist:

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