The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Los Angeles has launched its season gloriously with King Lear, heralding a summer quintet of Shakespearean productions to honor the Bard's 450th birthday.
This 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. 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, these actors do not perform in drag and do play roles that match their offstage sex. The gender reassignment flows smoothly. Britain, after all, where Shakespeare's tragedy takes place, has had female rulers such as Queen Victoria and both Elizabeths who reigned for long periods.
As Eden (Shakespeare's Edgar), Willow Geer also switches gears: In 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 characters arguably commit Western theater's biggest, most tragic mistakes since Oedipus plucked his eyes out at ancient Greek amphitheaters. Lear's vanity, puffed up over 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, or able to see clearly after losing one's eyesight (in what may be a reference to Sophocles' Oedipus the King).
The white-haired Ellen Geer's energetic acting is extraordinary, full of vitality that belies and defies her years. There's only room to mention a few standouts in this large cast. Abby 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.
As the Earl of Gloucester, Alan Blumenfeld is moving as a man who has been blinded -- literally. Willow Geer splendidly comes alive in the second act, with scenes her Eden dominates. Depicting Lear's Fool, Mellora Marshall delivers the goods with an uncanny cross-dressing performance in what is a pivotal role, since in medieval Europe 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 with its barbs sugarcoated in humor), it is Lear, whose epic mistakes in judging character wreak havoc.
Ellen Geer's and Marshall's co-direction is likewise inspired, making full use of the amphitheater's space amidst Topanga Canyon's sylvan glade. With much of the action happening all around you, this is a theatrical version of Cinerama -- in 3-D and living color! Lear's rooftop madness scene is stunningly staged, and there's plenty of swordplay onstage and gamboling through the surrounding woods.
Works written centuries ago can take on new meaning when put into a modern context, striking contemporary chords. The intercepting of messages, which plays a key role in Lear (circa 1606), has an updated relevance for our century. Although Lear's parchment and ink messages are not the emails and phone calls of our time, we can relate this plot device to any number of modern phone hacking scandals, and to the whole brouhaha surrounding Edward Snowden, with its 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.
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.