By Taylor Van Arsdale

Special to the Daily Press

A rustic wooden stage set in the midst of bucolic Topanga Canyon and a clear night under the stars is the perfect setting in which to see any of Shakespeare’s plays. Now is no different as the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, a 299-seat outdoor amphitheater carved into the Topanga hillside, kicked off its opening season with a production of “Hamlet.”

Poor Hamlet; that crazy Dane. His Uncle Claudius has killed his father — and now he’s cozying up with Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet, furious over their union, is driven to obtain revenge; he’s even started seeing ghosts (his deceased father’s ghost to be precise). Oh, if only he could exact retribution, if only, but it just never does work out for the poor dysfunctional lad who waits too long and contemplates way too much. The play, Shakespeare’s most well known, deals with themes of betrayal, madness and revenge, and artistic director Ellen Geer crafts a traditional re-telling of the tale choosing to keep the setting in Denmark in the Late Medieval period.

Standouts include Aaron Hendry, who plays a terrific Claudius and even manages to elicit, during his most serious role, a few well-placed laughs while interacting with characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (also notable). Stefan Tabencki’s Horatio is a joy to behold. Tabencki said, “Playing Horatio has been interesting due to his great difference of character in comparison to Hamlet … he has a big heart that is ruled by intellectual practicality, yet in the end he is willing to kill himself to continue that bond of friendship.”

With some of Shakespeare’s most well-known speeches, “To be or not to be” and “Alas poor Yorick” amongst them, there’s no question that the titular role is a tough one to play. Mike Peebler seemed to get into the groove only after the first act, but once he got going, he was unstoppable.

The real star however is Willow Geer. Her portrayal of Ophelia is riveting; and while she’s probably had more early training than her fellow thespians (being a Geer she was raised in the theatre and first graced the stage when she was 2 as the changeling child in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) she manages to make natural that which might otherwise seem affected, embodying her character with such grace, that you’ll find yourself spellbound watching her descent into madness.

But fear not … If “Hamlet” is too intense for your taste, more than drama lies in the woods of Topanga. This summer season there are five plays, which include director Melora Marshall’s one-of-kind signature production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” wherein the magical outdoor setting is transformed into an enchanted fairy forest, and an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ epic swashbuckler, “The Three Musketeers.”

“There’s something up here, besides our plays, we have camps for children, we have a real community here and we’d like to extend more to Santa Monica. We are neighbors after all, and neighbors support each other,” explained director Ellen Geer.

Performances run from June through October. Be prepared for swordplay in the aisles and be sure to bring a jacket because it gets cold when the sun goes down.

If you go

1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga CA

(310) 455-3723

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