Considered one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies by such luminaries as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley, King Lear also has been taken to task for its wanton cruelty by the likes of Samuel Johnson, and writers Charles Lamb and A.C. Bradley have deemed it nearly impossible to be properly presented onstage.
Similarly of two minds am I after viewing Theatricum Botanicum's reverse-gender production, as my general esteem for the artistic merits of the company is leavened by the fact that its adaptation seems to confuse the intricate plot of the original more than it illuminates. As such, it becomes difficult to invest emotionally in the production.
Sure, the concept of a Queen Lear (artistic director Ellen Geer) with three sons (Aaron Hendy as Goneril, Christopher W. Jones as Regan and Dane Oliver as "Cordelian" instead of Cordelia) shifts the resonances of Shakespeare's language at times, forcing us to consider subtle gender biases we may harbor regarding cruelty and filial piety. But directors Geer and Melora Marshall (who also plays Lear's Fool) do not switch all characters' genders (Alan Blumenfeld as Gloucester and Gerald C. Rivers as Kent remain male, for example), adding to the confusion in trying to reflect on the original while keeping the relationships straight.
To its credit, Theatricum provides a wonderful environment for Shakespeare, and the directors fully explore all corners of their arboreal space, especially during the storm scenes, which are heightened by Ian Flanders and Marshall McDaniel's excellent sound design. Though Geer seems blustery and constantly outraged at the start, she later finds more nuance and even tragic humor in Lear's madness.
The remainder of the cast is generally good, though Blumenfeld and Rivers shine brightest, as does Willow Geer as "Eden"/Tom O'Bedlam.
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Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga; in rep through Sept. 28. (310) 455-3723. www.theatricum.com.
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