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Review: THE WINTER'S TALE at Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum

magical and enthralling Shakespeare tragicomedy through September 30

By: Jun. 13, 2024
Review: THE WINTER'S TALE at Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum  Image
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Review: THE WINTER'S TALE at Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum  Image
Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale runs through September 30 at the magical Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, a woody canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains between Malibu and Woodlands Hills.  There is a kind of fairy enchantment in seeing lovely, traditional Shakespeare in full Renaissance costumes, with lutes and tambourines and twiny baskets of nosegays, on a rustic stage built around towering, craggy old oaks and leafy ferns. Bats and moths swoop in under the twinkling string lights. A chorus of frogs and crickets can be heard off stage.

Like that glorious vaudeville palace, The Hollywood Pantages Theatre, Will Geer Theatricum Botanical is a legendary destination in its own right.  To me Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum is one of the most enthralling and idyllic places in Los Angeles, and I cannot think of a more fitting and wondrous place to spend a balmy summer night under the stars, soaking up Shakespeare’s gorgeous, haunted beauty.

Review: THE WINTER'S TALE at Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum  Image
Christian Jordan Smith and Sophia Dawson

The Winter’s Tale at Will Geer Theatricum Botanical is a true joy of a production. There is a terrific cast of lively, powerhouse performers and many irresistible moments of magic, delight, drama, and fall-out-your-chair-laughing hilarity.  I absolutely loved it.

I have always struggled to understand and connect with The Winter's Tale on the page.  This was my first time seeing it live, and it plays like a fever dream, haunting, with lovely, unexpected bursts of boisterous comedy and strange magic.  The Winter’s Tale is a strange kind of hybrid tragicomedy myth.  There are places that it seems like Shakespeare’s bitterest of plays, King Lear, or like Othello, a dark warning of that poisonous, irresistible worm, jealousy.  In other moments, The Winter’s Tale recalls the rambling fairy tale logic of Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel or the Greek myth of Pygmalion.  There are extreme tonal shifts from dark, overwhelming psychological drama and tragedy to light-hearted merrymaking and romantic fables of forbidden love and shipwrecks and shepherds.

Review: THE WINTER'S TALE at Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum  Image
Willow Geer

On stage at Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, The Winter’s Tale is vibrant and imaginative.  This production is a delightful family affair.  Founder Will Geer’s daughter Ellen Geer superbly directs The Winter’s Tale, and his granddaughter Willow Geer delivers a brilliant performance as Hermione, with gorgeous command of the language, quiet power and dignity and heartbreaking poignancy.

At the heart of the story, is a king of Sicily, Leontes (Aaron Hendry), who, overcome by the excesses of his power and paranoia, becomes consumed by the fear that his wife Hermione is having an affair with his best friend, King Polixenes (an excellent Max Lawrence).  Jealous King Leontes destroys his own family and everything he loves.  Aaron Hendry delivers a powerhouse performance as Leontes, who is tyrannical, brutal, loving, violent, remorse-filled, eaten alive by his own paranoia, insecurity and blinding rage.

Review: THE WINTER'S TALE at Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum  Image
Aralyn Wilson and Aaron Hendry

There are historians who feel that the plot of The Winter’s Tale, while mostly based on Robert Greene’s romance Pandosto, is also a subversive reference to the extravagent six-times-married tyrant Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.  Henry VIII ordered his second wife’s head chopped off after he accused her, probably falsely, of adultery, and it was in the court of her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, that Shakespeare’s theatre troupe often performed.

It is surprising and deeply refreshing to see a play from the early 1600s boldly diving into what we now describe as misogyny, male insecurity and rage, the desire to control women and their bodies, mental illness, and intimate partner and family violence,.  These legacies are still with us 400 years later.  A woman is beaten every 9 seconds, and one of the leading causes of death in children is homicide.

I felt chills on my arms as Aaron Hendry delivered his unforgettable monologue:

Review: THE WINTER'S TALE at Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum  Image
Melora Marshall, Tim Halligan, Willow Geer,
Max Lawrence, and Ensemble

There may be in the cup. / A spider steep'd, and one may drink, depart, / And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge /. Is not infected: but if one present / The abhorr'd ingredient to his eye, make known / How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides, / With violent hefts. I have drunk, / and seen the spider.

It is a tribute to Shakespeare’s rebellious and subversive heart, that he gives an older woman, Paulina, the last word and moral authority in the king’s court.  Paulina here is exceptionally played by Melora Marshall, who is spellbinding, courageous, funny, and wise.  I adored Marshall’s ripe delivery of the line “I, an old turtle, will wing me to some wither'd bough,” which caused the whole audience to convulse in laughter.

Review: THE WINTER'S TALE at Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum  Image
Daniel Ramirez and Gerald C. Rivers

Somewhere in The Winter’s Tale, with all the nightmarish horror, there is also a fairy tale of redemption and second chances, love, family reunion, reconciliation, friendships mended, and the improbable, sly healing wizardry of time.  It is like a second play within this play. Far away from the tragic and power-mad court of Sicily, there is the frolicking, mythical seacoast of Bohemia.

And here on stage at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanical, it is the low-life thieves, mischievous rogues, and rowdy, sweet country bumpkins of Bohemia that steal the show.  Roars of non-stop laughter and spontaneous applause from the audience came for the Old Shepherd Earnestine Phillips, her son the Clown Daniel Ramirez, and the wily thief Autolycus Gerald C. Rivers.  I can only salute their vivid hilarity, spellbinding, infinitely creative performances, and unreal charisma. I literally almost fell of my bench, I was laughing so hard.  These brilliant actors should each have their own solo shows.

Review: THE WINTER'S TALE at Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum  Image
The Ensemble

If it is your first time at Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, know that you can rent a cushion from the theatre, or bring some from home for the tiered, amphitheater style bench seating.  For matinees, you might want to bring sunglasses, hats, and sun protection.  For evening performances, I recommend ponchos, cozy blankets, or layers of wraps or sweaters, since the theatre is outdoors and even balmy nights in the canyon can feel chilly as the evening deepens.  Show up early, if you can, to soak up the extraordinary, enchanting atmosphere of Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum.

Photo by Ian Flanders

A Winter’s Tale runs through September 30 at Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum.  Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 North Topanga Canyon Blvd. in Topanga.  There is paid parking on-site at the theatre or free street parking on Topanga Canyon. You can get tickets by calling (310) 455-3723 or clicking the button below:


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