With the aid of the delete button and a shortened title, a canonical text is announced as a reinterpretation “for today’s world.” Thus the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum’s season-opening production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” becomes instead “Lear.” Given that its co-adaptor, co-director and leading player is also the veteran festival’s Artistic Director, perhaps the production should have carried the title “Geer.”
The prospect of a gender reversed “Lear” carries a certain intrigue and nobody on the L.A. stage scene should question Ellen Geer’s right – privilege even – to take a stab at this Everest of a role in the theater that carries her name. Nor should anybody blanch or even raise an eyebrow at the un-revolutionary concept of a female Lear.
But, program pronouncements aside, the period-set production in the bucolic Topanga Canyon glen seems little interested in breaking new ground or opening up new lines of thought. The gender reversal is taken only so far – Lear is a queen who divides her kingdom among her sons. The Earl of Gloucester (still male) has two daughters (one illegitimate, one wronged) who have been renamed. Kent: male. Fool: androgynous. Lear’s sons Regan and Goneril: male and scheming as befitting – what do you know! – ambitious, cutthroat political creatures. And they’re princes at that. Since presumably Regan or Goneril would be in line for the throne, you might think these devious brothers might not merely send their dotty mum guilt-free into the raging storm, they might also dispatch an assassin to finish the job.
As a vehicle for several of the Theatricum company regulars to play roles that would not ordinarily be available, “Lear” is serviceable Shakespeare delivered and at a relatively thrifty two hours and 15 minutes. And befitting the celebration of the occasion that a full scale “Lear” often is, Ellen Geer and her co-director Melora Marshall fill the Theatricum space with a large cast and seem determined to use every bit of that woodland space, even when certain choices (portions of the storm scene set gratuitously on rooftops) force audience members to rubberneck and potentially lose dialog. Val Miller’s costumes are straight ahead 16th century, with no attempt at sexualization or gender questioning. If Queen Lear is going a’ hunting with her 100 knights, she’s going in a gown.
As for the “feminine element” as overlay, one can only wonder whether the Theatricum could have assembled enough quality actors to present the play with an all-women cast, either without the reversal or potentially making all the roles female – royals, spouses, fools, bastards and , servants. Granted, this rumination is your Stage Scene Examiner avoiding his responsibility by pining for what might have been rather than reviewing what’s up on stage. Mea culpa, readers, but that is where this “Lear” too often nudged my mind to roam.
It also roamed to practical matters like who is going to do the blinding of Gloucester? Will good Gloucester sister kill bad Gloucester sister? Will Geer’s Lear make her final entrance carrying the body of slain son Cordelian . Negative to that last question, but that entrance is deftly handled. The textual adaptations aren’t so excessive as to majorly piss off purists, but they’re rarely daring or exciting either.
“Thou, Nature, art my goddess,” intones the illegitimate Igraine (formerly Edmund) of Gloucester played by Abby Craden. All right, then. Let’s consider. In the world of “Lear” is it natural to covet the affection your dad gives your sister? Does nature drive one to treachery, treason and – if you can swing it – murder? Unquestionably and Craden’s Igraine walks a line between full out rotter and political opportunist willing to become the sexualized pawn of Lear’s sons. Willow Geer (Ellen’s real life daughter) delivers a knowing and very interesting Eden, becoming completely unrecognizable (in appearance and vocally) in the grimed-up incarnation of Poor Tom.
Part of what makes Goneril and Regan such exciting roles, as written, is how their villainy runs so counter to “nature” – the child’s betrayal of her parent, the supposed “gentler sex” being willing and eager to get her hands bloody if power is at stake. When it’s men screwing over their mother, the waters do not muddy with the same patterns. Aaron Hendry (Goneril) and Christopher W. Jones (Regan) make the two brothers unrepentant slimeballs largely from the get-go and Hendry’s castigation of his “milk-livered” Duchess of Albany (Taylor Jackson Ross) seems heavy-handed. A quick-on-the-uptake Melora Marshall deftly handles all of the Fool’s verbal wit, bouncing off Geer’s Lear, Gerald C. Rivers’ Kent and in the mad trial scene with Lear and Eden.
As for the title Lear, Ellen Geer never takes over the performance from her ensemble, but she still has things largely under control. We watch her wronged Queen brought down a peg by each new indignity and she strikes at her own forehead as if to beat back the oncoming madness. This Lear doesn’t bellow or sob; she’s no match for the storm that takes her wits and nearly her life. The reunion with Dane Oliver’s Cordelian and her weeping over his corpse are plenty affecting.
Queen or King, son or daughter, that’s one bit of nature that translates across genders.
“Lear” performs in repertory through Sept. 28 at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Rd., Topanga. $25-$37. (310) 455-3723, www.theatricum.com.