A funny thing happened on the way to the Theatricum. The show starts before you even get there. Let me explain:
This being my first venture out to the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum located in the woods of the Topanga Canyon, I make every effort imaginable to not get lost. I alternated glances at the calculated route on my phone, the MapQuest print on my lap, and the occasional mercy glance at the road to reassure my companion that I wouldn’t drive us off a cliff. The fifteen-minute drive up into the clouds breeds this curious excitement for what awaits you at the top. This method of “transport” to the world and players of the Theatricum Botanicum is a fun launch pad to the main event.
Hamlet anoints the 2010 Summer Repertory Season at the Theatricum, under the direction of Artistic Director Ellen Geer, the daughter of veteran actor Will Geer. The history of this 299-seat amphitheatre is your classic Hollywood fairytale come true. Grandpa Geer, blacklisted from Tinseltown during the McCarthy Era, wanted to stick it to the Powers That Be when he decided that an out of work actor is still an actor, so he planted a theater sanctuary in the Topanga woods and dubbed it the Theatricum Botanicum (Latin for “theater in the garden”).
Actors Mike Peebler and Jeff Wiesen, both UCLA Theater alums, alternate the roles of Hamlet and Laertes throughout the season. Peebler is tonight’s Hamlet. No stranger to TB or the works of the Bard, Peebler’s Hamlet is virile and electric. This Hamlet is the Hamlet a beloved UCLA professor used to describe as the man studying for his master’s degree who comes home to find his uncle banging his mommy. He’s too smart, too angsty for his own good. He has no job, because all he does is study, speak in riddles, stage sit-ins and read Zola. He mows you down with the way his eyes light up and the way his body permeates each emotion. He scares you and excites you. This is Peebler’s Hamlet.
The show gains momentum during the ghostly encounter in the final scene of Act 1. Old Hamlet’s Ghost, played by Tim Halligan, is ominous in a silver cloak draped over his form as he drags himself across roofs and platforms only to disappear into the hillside, a trail of obscured thunder marking each heavy step. Hamlet, his loyal Horatio (Stefan Tabencki), and their men set off into the hillside after the apparition. This is when one notices the grand scale of the worldly stage these actors use to make their performances more rich. They chase, jump over levels and dig their heels deep in soft soil, only to stomp across floorboards in the next scene.
Aaron Hendry and Melora Marshall play Claudius and Gertrude, but come across as a substitute couple for nearly every celebrity pairing these days. A spouse’s expiration date nears, they get kicked to the curb and the cougar jumps into bed with the younger man. Hollywood loves their cougars and so does Denmark, it seems. Marshall is striking as Gertrude, and could put Julie Christie’s profile to shame as she claims her second wind with the brutish lothario that is Hendry’s Claudius. You almost can’t blame these two for doing away with that other guy. Hendry and Marshall share a potent chemistry with caresses and kisses in every scene they share. They are also the most stylish on stage, thanks to costume designer Val Miller, with special acknowledgement to Shon LeBlanc & Valentino’s. See? They have a stylist.
Carl Palmer as the meddling sycophant Polonius is bumbling and a bit scattered, but perhaps this works for the character since the players about him are steadfast in contrast, except for Hamlet, of course. Palmer’s performance is light and lacks the sinistry that many times accompanies the character of Polonius. He handles Ophelia, played by Willow Geer, more like a ragdoll than a daughter.
Furthermore, Peebler’s delivery of his second soliloquy, “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I…” is brilliant. The audience listens to every word, every exhale, and the moment Peebler utters the last lines before his exit, a lull takes over the crowd. Perhaps we were struck dumb for a few seconds before we thought it a good idea to erupt into a cheering applause before the following scene, but I’m willing to bet, had Peebler just performed his six soliloquies opening night, the crowd would have left satisfied. He had us at hello.
Ophelia’s impending madness is always the performance I watch out for. Up until Act 4, Geer’s Ophelia is subdued, almost reluctant to speak any words. Her costume mirrors the headpiece of a nun, but the bodice and smock closely resembling an Anne Boleyn portrait. There is an outward show of duality in her effects, but Ophelia's insides are hidden away until her final Act. Geer thrusts herself onto the stage in a white nightgown, feet bare, her strawberry-blonde hair a shocking revelation. She sings and stutters and spits madness onto everyone in her path. Her melody is sad, but then again, it is to be expected. Geer’s performance is horrifying and heartbreaking as she spills to her knees and weeps for her lost father. She shrieks her words and pounds her chest so violently—in a manner so disturbing—it is nothing short of stunning. The barefoot Geer even runs away into the forest with Gertrude on her tail. While the scene continues onstage, all eyes are transfixed on the far corner of the hillside where the spotlight is bright enough to capture Ophelia’s strawberry-blonde hair and white nightdress retreating into the darkness.
The final Act is fascinating because one is curious to see how the re-entry of Wiesen as Laertes plays against Peebler’s Hamlet, if only to get hints of how the other could play the alternate character on a different night. The rapier match flows mark for mark, probably because both Peebler and Wiesen are well-versed in stage combat thanks to Aaron Hendry’s electrifying fight direction.
At the proverbial curtain, the audience is reluctant to let Peebler go. Exhilarated, I look around and wonder why this beautiful amphitheater with ample seating is not packed on opening night. The crowd was plentiful, but still unacceptable. Do not pass up an invitation to the Theatricum Botanicum on a summer night. Bring a dear friend, a blanket, and a lovely spread. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is cherished and protected here. This woodland haven truly is an actors’ playground. I suggest you go watch them play. Remember to leave reality at the foot of the mountain and your head in the clouds.
Hamlet runs June 5 – October 2, 2010 at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd, Topanga, CA 90290. Information can be found at http://www.theatricum.com/index.html.