The name, “Lear” by itself, as the centerpiece of this summer’s Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum schedule, turns out not only to make the statement of the play’s renown but is the clue to an innovative gender switch of character as well.
Ellen Geer is reigns majestic from the moment of her regal entrance among the audience with pomp and circumstance, powerful and wide-ranging, including royal dog in her arms, to her later emotional demise. In switching the gender of King Lear in the story about family dividing a kingdom in ancient Britain Co-directors, Melora Marshall and Ellen Geer triumph from the moment Geer arrives through the back of the audience, majestic in velvet and complete with a little dog, we believe the new version of this wide ranging story.
Actually Botanicum staffer, Eddie, ‘had us,’ waving us into the deep forest parking lot with a huge, welcoming smile, followed by the nonplussed care from Evan Mitchum (the charming grand nephew of actor, Robert Mitchum) in the box office, who effortlessly straightened out our ticket mix-up. Of course, dining picnic style on the tables and walking into the entrance path into the open air theatre is always a thrill.
In Lear particularly, the space is beautifully utilized. When the “rain storm” started in the play, complete with sound effects, you could feel the drops pelting down. The canopy of huge, old trees surrounding the rustic stage make all the court and forest settings in the play all the more realistic and enchanting. Lighting by Zach Moore and sound design by Ian Flanders and Marshall McDaniel are extraordinary.
Lear, the aging monarch in this case is a queen about to turn over power to her three children. It is a timeless tale: whichever child professes to love this parent the most is to receive the largest piece of the kingdom. Ellen Geer takes on this role; Melora Marshall takes on the role of the fool.
Two of the sons feed Lear’s ego with false acclamations but the youngest answers candidly. “I love your majesty according to my bond, no more nor less.” Though adding a logical explanation to her answer, Lear is enraged and sets in motion a series of events that end in death.
When Lear's close friend, the Earl of Kent (a rich, regal Gerald C. Rivers) tries to speak on Cordelia's behalf, Lear banishes him from the kingdom so he disguises himself to stay by her side and assist her. When Lear then looks to the Fool for help, the co-directors and co-actors are in their highest, heavenly element.
Soon, the true sons’ true natures becomes apparent. Goneril (Aaron Hendry), the eldest and most avaricious son, is not satisfied and becomes determined to take away Lear’s power in league with equally greedy brother, Regan (Christopher W. Jones) Jones, along with his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall (Liz Eldridge).
The scene is stark and up close when Jones plucks out the eyes of Gloucester (a most engaging and empathetic Alan Blumenfeld). Gloucester’s daughters are a major factor in the story. Eden (Willow Geer) astonishingly transforms herself from the innocent girl to the mad character of Old Tom so she can help her father and back again to lovely daughter). Igraine (sinewy, mesmerizing, Abby Craden) is the other daughter, whose plotting leads to catastrophe.
Now Lear is no longer just an old fool with imagined enemies, but a matriarch surrounded by real and very personal ones. Even in this complex and long play of intrigue, the action moves along cleanly across the entire Botanicum landscape to the very end. Betrayal and revenge are the themes that lead to tragedy between mother and sons, magnified and more potent because of the birth connection between mother and sons.
"Lear" marks the 450th anniversary of the Bard, with selected performances including lively conversations with actors, audience members and academics. Lear plays through Sept. 28 on the Main Stage. For more information, visit www.theatricum.com or call the box office at 310-455-3723.