A frightening thing happens when a woman plays the title role in a gender-reversed King Lear; the betrayal and revenge between mother and sons takes on an added level of horror. What was already tragic to begin with, as originally written for a father and daughters, now feels even more threatening in the reverse.
Perhaps it is because the bond between mother and child pre-dates even birth making the treachery of flesh born of flesh feel like the ultimate violation of a sacrosanct relationship. When it is a son raising his hand against his mother the threat is magnified, especially when viewed through the lens of today’s modern society.
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, an aging ruler is ready to give up his throne and apportion his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, based on how much their declarations of love please him. Two of the daughters acquiesce and feed Lear’s ego with false reassurances but Cordelia, the youngest, answers with a seemingly less spirited reply. “I love your majesty according to my bond, no more nor less.” Though she goes on to explain the logic of her words, Lear is enraged and sets in motion a series of events he will too late come to regret. Make no mistake, this tragedy ends in death. A lot of death.
For Theatricum’s LEAR, the weighty role goes to Ellen Geer, theatre doyenne and matriarch of the Geer clan, who weathers the internal and external storms of the play with considerable dexterity and a lifetime’s worth of acting prowess at her fingertips. She is a formidable actor, and to see the heartbreak move across her expressive face is much like watching an ocean wave curl its way to the shore before it breaks. She rages; she boasts; she wanders aimlessly as her mind falters and then steels herself against the torturous elements perched high above the audience where the staging precariously accentuates her vulnerability.
She and Melora Marshall co-direct, steadily moving the story to an ending that doesn’t lessen its impact by trading on sentimentality. With Geer leading the way, at least seven other roles are presented by an actor of the opposite sex.
Cruelty thy name is Goneril, here played with shocking bitterness by Aaron Hendry as the eldest of the three children and orchestrator of the plan to strip Lear of her dignity and her power. Together with Regan, played by an equally strong Christopher W. Jones, they make a disgusting pair of ingrates whose vile actions reflect their increasing greed. Hendry is physically and vocally intimidating. Jones, along with Liz Eldridge as his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, are just plain awful people. When Jones plucks out Gloucester’s eyes, played poignantly by Alan Blumenfeld, the brutal scene is staged front and center so the audience cannot escape the full measure of horror.
Gloucester’s sons (Edgar and Edmund the bastard in Shakespeare’s original text) become Eden (Willow Geer) and Igraine (Abby Craden) in this production. This switch allows for greater sexual tension in the play as both of Lear’s sons lust after the devious Igraine causing them to turn on each other later after they’ve rendered Lear powerless.
Propelled by her own desires, and willing to do anything to get them, Igraine is the catalyst for many of the deaths that take place. Though she experiences a bit of remorse at the last, it is too little too late and Craden brings marvelous shadings to one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters.
As her sister, Eden, Willow Geer morphs from innocence to feigned madness in a wild, unpredictable performance as Old Tom. It is the kind of bold character work often attributed to Melora Marshall and Geer seizes it both physically and vocally as she darts across the stage and up into the trees like a feral cat on the run. That she will return to her former self in Act 5 makes this character arc a full and rich one.
She is one of the truly good and loyal characters in LEAR. Melora Marshall’s Fool is another, as is Gerald C. Rivers’ stalwart Earl of Kent. Marshall pokes and prods the Queen but never leaves her side when she is cast out. Even the disparity in their stations cannot keep Lear from looking to the Fool for comfort. We see in their relationship another kind of family bond; one born of choice. Marshall is better than ever in the nuances of this role.
Which brings us to Lear’s youngest son, Cordelian, the truest and most honest soul in the story. Wronged though he is, his death at the end of the play is Shakespeare’s most challenging plot resolution since one hopes that good will somehow triumph over evil. But that is not the moral of this story and though Oliver captures in his performance all the devotion and love inherent in Lear’s youngest son, his reprieve is not to be, giving pause to remember that “Striving to better, oft we mar what ’s well.”
Lighting (by Zach Moore) and sound design (by Ian Flanders and Marshall McDaniel) are especially striking in this production. Their man-made effects powerfully enhance the natural elements to create an imposing presence in the usually peaceful glen.
This is a LEAR of a lifetime, artfully mastered and important in its scope, and one of my top picks of what to see this summer. A LEAR like this won’t come around again.
Shakespeare in LA
June 7 – September 28, 2014
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Topanga, CA 90290
Tickets: (310) 455-3723 or www.theatricum.com
The outdoor amphitheater at Theatricum Botanicum is terraced into the hillside of the rustic canyon. Audience members are advised to dress casually (warmly for evenings) and bring cushions for bench seating. Snacks are available at the Hamlet Hut, and picnickers are welcome before and after the performances.