Can you imagine a more delightful way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon than in the lush wooded tranquility of the Theatricum Botanicum watching several dozen gifted players gambol over the hillside declaiming the words of Shakespeare?
This secluded outdoor theater in Topanga Canyon has begun its 2009 season, ready again to enliven everyone’s summer with its potpourri of classic plays and vintage comedies, presided over by the matriarch of the Theatricum family, actress/director/teacher Ellen Geer. This Sunday’s offering was Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” a play not as often performed as the more well known comedies and tragedies. But the Theaatricum company does justice to this convoluted plot, thanks mostly to the superb acting of Thad Geer as King Cymbeline and the beautiful Willow Geer as his daughter Imogen. (Just to keep the record straight: Ellen and Thad are the children of the late actor Will Geer, who founded the Theatricum; Willow is Ellen’s daughter.)
The plot of “Cymbeline,” like many of Shakespeare’s plays, involves the intrigues of royalty, the scheming of an ambitious queen, a forbidden love between a princess and a commoner, a pair of royal twins who have disappeared, disguises, identity switches, gender reversals and miscommunication. Even murder. I guess if you’ve seen one Shakespeare dramedy you’ve seen them all. (Just kidding!)
Shakespeare is not easy. It takes intelligent acting to make the poetry of the arcane language and the obscure references accessible to a modern audience. The necessary clarity and precision of speech was provided by Thad and Willow Geer, by Susan Angelo as the Queen, by Mike Peebler as the Princess’ lover, Posthumus Leonatus, by Gerald Rivers as Pisanio, Posthumus’ servant, by Aaron Hendry as Iachimo, the treacherous Roman, by Jeff Wiesen as Cloten, the Queen’s obnoxious son, and by Tim Halligan as Caius Lucius, the leader of the invading Romans.
The difficulty of projecting the voice from an outdoor stage, however, was a distinct handicap for some of the performers, causing them to screech. Particularly shrill were Samara Frame as one of the royal twins, and Earnestine Phillips, who played the twins’ supposed “mother.” Phillips, a long-time veteran of performances at the Theatricum, was surprisingly bad, emoting at such a frenzied pitch that all of her speeches were totally unintelligible.
There were a couple of gender changes that Shakespeare didn’t author. The royal twins were both boys in Shakespeare’s original manuscript, not a boy and a girl, and their “mother” in this version, the Earnestine Phillips role, is an amalgam of the banished Lord who had kidnapped the twins and the nurse who cared for them and brought them up. Neither of these changes is significant to the action of the play, but one wonders why the director seemingly arbitrarily changed the second brother to a sister.
Like all the plays presented at the Theatricum, “Cymbeline” has a fairy-tale quality that is provided by the natural outdoor settling, and the ambience goes a long way toward enhancing the mood, as does the varied array of costumes. This play will be presented every Sunday at 3:30 p.m. through Sept. 27, alternating with performances of “Julius Caesar,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Chekhov’s” The Cherry Orchard,” and Moliere’s “The Miser.”
The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., halfway between the Ventura Freeway and Pacific Coast Highway. For ticketing and performance schedules, call (310) 455-3723 or go online to www.theatricum.com.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.