Friday, June 27, 2014

Long Live the Queen: Ellen Geer as “Lear” by M.R. Hunter

Shakespeare's women are not shy about donning on a codpiece when necessary, but gender-reversals can bode uneasy misgivings and critical doubt from the outset as to how successful the sex-switcheroo might pan out. The title character of King Lear is not one so easily redressed given the patriarchal overtures and the blustery folly of a man steeped in ego and arrogance.

Having seen both Harry Groener and Dakin Matthews in the preeminent Antaeus production 4 years ago, I was a bit skeptical about this version starring the incomparable Ellen Geer as Lear. I didn't go charging up the hill to see it on opening weekend. It took awhile to mull the idea over. Queen Lear? I'm no purist, yet whenever gender trumps the integrity of a story, let alone a title character, it's been my experience that usually the idea is about provocation rather than insight.

I was wrong.

This is an entirely re-imagined Lear under Melora Marshall and Ellen Geer's wide panoramic direction which adapts the play from its universal themes of filial love, loyalty and error into a revitalized statement on female authority, oedipal succor and the tragedy of enlightenment. Suddenly, the king is transformed when Ms. Geer regally enters and holds court with the armament of her sex as crown and chalice much like one can imagine Elizabeth I during the Bard's time. She is no longer just an old fool, but a matriarch surrounded by enemies both imagined and real. Unlike the original text, Lear's abdication of her throne to her sons is less a laissez-faire gesture of power but a political strategy vouchsafing her position and her heirs.

Surprisingly, the text supports this tenuous connection between a woman and her scheming sons, bolstered by their wives who betray their own gender to align with their husbands (a sorry but believable shift among females). The sons, Goneril and Regan are somewhat sympathetic as they attempt to literally cut the apron strings. Unlike Cordelian who could be accused of being a mama's boy, they plot and take advantage of their mother's compassion juxtaposed against her severity as a spinster queen requiring a greater degree of validation from men by virtue of her feminine vanity. The layers create a new tragedy as it plays out with subtle alterations until it feels like déjà vu—the story is ultimately the same and yet so different it is another play entirely.

Only at the close does the gender-bending take a couple of wrong turns. The end doesn't quite satisfy or make logical sense and there were other seemingly obvious options to avoid the imbalance of power. In this sense, the means justifies the ends because the journey is well worth it, imbuing the text with greater psychological strata albeit the occasional strain. The action and pace never dissipates as it moves at a keen clip, jauntily engrossing as Marshall and Geer utilize every inch of the playing area with Geer perched on roofs, players taking flight among the trees for a 360 degree swivel in your seat, visually entertaining ride.

The major players do a fine job of reestablishing the text to their role reversals and relationships. Aaron Hendry as Goneril and Christopher W. Jones as Regan are perfectly contemptuous spoiled brats looking to throw the old hag off. They enlighten the former daughters with masculinity most unkind—instead of the fickle natures of a woman, the sons seem to deride a misogynistic pleasure as they band together against their Mother Queen. Willow Geer as the pathetic Eden is sweetly portrayed with enough fire and lunacy against the poorest of the lot, Earl of Gloucester, memorably performed by the always reliable Alan Blumenfeld who gives his role a palpable regret. Abby Craden is saucy, sexy and commands as Igraine as she uses her feminine wiles to snag two brothers into her conniving web of deceit.

Two women stand above it all: Melora Marshall as the Fool is heartbreakingly sincere. She is an impish actor able to shapeshift into almost any role, but her Fool is legion among the best. It should be noted that the additional chemistry between Marshall and Geer is lent by their relation and decades of working on the boards together which brings a luster in their quick repartee. No matter, the connection between them strengthens the tie as Lear hears her own foolishness from the wisest character of the play, the Fool.

Ellen Geer is a force of nature as a performer, so it is fitting she should wear the crown and plunder the depths of a Queen among the verdant atmosphere of her home and theater. She doesn't disappoint in her sumptuous red velvet gown with upswept hair to her tattered rags accompanied by her long, silvery tresses symbolic of her state both actual and emotional. Geer is Lear. The actress portrays a sensitivity usually lost in the original countenance but she is fierce as a lion. In this adaptation, it is no wonder she would bear sons as ambitious, narcissistic and mean when she turns on the one child who truly adores her. Even this action is supported by Shakespeare's characterization of power gone to one's head in a woman who'd sooner kill the runt than let it live. It is brutal, beautiful, and a Lear I will never forget and feel privileged to have seen. I know two Lear's—a king and a queen—one no better than the other but one who makes me feel empowered and mindful as a woman. Geer's Lear is not a feminist exercise of mimicry. She is the real deal. To miss this Lear is to lose the magic of Ellen Geer at her best.

A woman's heart is a mystery. Men can make meat of it. We are not so neatly defined by our gender, our roles as mothers, wives, sisters and soldiers. There isn't a man who can understand our depths, angst, submission and our power worn with grace and mercuiral verisimilitude. The whys and the wherefores: cultural, societal, evolutionary and whatnot are less important than the truth. Women are no better and no less than their sexual counterparts. We err to the same licentiousness, failings and strength as any man. This "Lear" extols all of these virtues elegantly.

King Lear is dead. Long live the Queen!

Runs through Sept. 28
Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Topanga, CA 90290
Tickets: $25-$37
PH: 310-455-3723

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