Theatricum Botanicum at 50

The Canyon ChronicleBy The Canyon Chronicle

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Theatricum Botanicum at 50
The Curse of the Scottish Play By The Royal Shakespeare Company The Scottish Play. The Bard’s Play. Macbeth is surrounded by superstition and fear of the ‘curse’ – uttering the play’s name aloud in a theatre causes bad luck. But where did this superstition come from? ‘Double, Double Toil And Trouble; Fire Burn, And Cauldron Bubble…’ Sixteenth century Scotland was notorious for its witch-hunts, mainly due to King James VI of Scotland’s obsession with witchcraft. The violent death of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots by execution in 1587 was said to have inspired James’ dark fascination with magic.  Later, in 1589 when James was sailing back to Scotland from Denmark with his new wife, Anne, their ship encountered violent storms at sea, and they were nearly drowned. The Scottish King blamed the evil spells of witches for conjuring the storm, and following his return to Scotland ordered a witch-hunt in the coastal town of North Berwick. He later wrote Daemonologie, a treatise on witchcraft to further inspire persecution against witches. Witchcraft To Please The King James became King James I of England in 1603, and his new subjects were keen to appease him and his views on the demonic. Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus was published in 1604, and its shocking portrayal of witchcraft and association with the devil intensified England’s fear of sorcery.  Shakespeare’s Macbeth followed in 1606 with direct references to James’ earlier misfortune at sea: ‘Though his bark cannot be lost, Yet it shall be tempest-tost’. Shakespeare was also said to have researched the weird sisters in depth; their chants in Macbeth, and ingredients of fenny snake, eye of newt and toe of frog, are supposedly real spells. Accidents, Injuries And Deaths — The Curse Of Macbeth According to folklore, Macbeth was cursed from the beginning. A coven of witches objected to Shakespeare using real incantations, so they put a curse on the play. Legend has it the play’s first performance (around 1606) was riddled with disaster. The actor playing Lady Macbeth died suddenly, so Shakespeare himself had to take on the part. Other rumoured mishaps include real daggers being used in place of stage props for the murder of King Duncan (resulting in the actor’s death). The play hasn’t had much luck since. The famous Astor Place Riot in New York in 1849, caused by rivalry between American actor Edwin Forrest and English actor William Charles Macready, resulted in at least 20 deaths and over 100 injuries. Both Forrest and Macready were playing Macbeth in opposing productions at the time.  Other productions have been plagued with accidents, including actors falling off the stage, mysterious deaths, and even narrow misses by falling stage weights, as happened to Laurence Olivier at the Old Vic in 1937. Breaking the Curse So how can you avoid catastrophe if you utter the play that shall not be named? Exit the theatre, spin around three times, spit, curse and then knock on the theatre door to be allowed back in…
Far left: Willow Geer as Lady Macbeth convinces Macbeth (Max Lawrence) to kill the king. Left: Queen Titania (Taylor Jackson Ross, front) has fallen hopelessly in love with Bottom (Jon Sprik alternates with Alan Blumenthal in the role), who was magically transformed into an ass.
Macbeth Triumphs at the Theatricum
By Annemarie Donkin

On a night full of terror and fury, the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum proudly opened its 50th Anniversary Summer Season with an outstanding production of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth on Saturday, June 10.
A standing room-only crowd sat in rapt attention throughout the play and celebrated at the end with a sustained and well-deserved standing ovation.

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air”
Witches and spirits lurked about in the yonder forest as Macbeth and his equally power-mad wife, Lady Macbeth, concoct a horrific plan to murder King Duncan and seize power.
As Macbeth, Max Lawrence played the title role magnificently and with such ferocity that we could see him devolve from heroic general to maniacal tyrant right before our eyes.
Played beautifully by Willow Geer, Lady Macbeth is a scheming and conniving wife who encourages Macbeth to commit cold-blooded murder in a single, grisly act.

Her performance is so terrific that Geer takes Lady M from a once-proud woman to a mere specter haunted by bloody nightmares in a real tour de force. Brava!
During the play, the large cast used every inch of the outdoor theatre for their entrances, exits and battles. They actually surround the audience at points so that we all were part of the show, thus increasing the tension and terror.
In fact, there were stellar performances all around under Theatricum artistic director Ellen Geer’s brilliant and expert direction.
Notable was Jeff Wiesen’s intelligent and nuanced performance as Banquo, the questioning, curious and ultimately, moral center of the play when his murdered ghost appears and haunts Macbeth during a celebratory banquet. 

Then, after Macbeth’s rivals were slaughtered during a bloody coup, the superb Aaron Hendry as Macduff pulls his sword and organizes a revolt against Macbeth and ultimately beheads him, thus fulfilling the final prophecy.

Other cast members of note are Claire Simba as Lady Macduff; Cavin (CR) Mohrhardt as Malcolm; Franc Ross in dual roles as Duncan and the Porter; and Steven C. Fisher as Ross.
Also, in the cast are Marc Antonio Pritchett as Old Siward and Andy Stokan as the doctor.

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble.
One can hardly mention the Scottish Play without noting the Weird sisters with their wicked incantations and prophesies. During a thunderstorm at the opening of the play, the witches dance about like daemons as they proclaim their prophecies to Macbeth and Banquo about who will and will not be king.
Later, amid the “double, double, toil and trouble” scene, the gloomy Hecate (Taylor Jackson Ross) presides over the otherworldly and evil incantations to Macbeth. Thus, the three prophesies inform the play through to its inevitable and bloody end.

(History says that Shakespeare used actual incantations in the play; perhaps that is why it inspired such fear among theatre folk.)
But, seriously, play it safe and don’t utter the name of Macbeth inside the theatre. Having said that, run, don’t walk to get your tickets. Theatricum’s Macbeth is a must-see show!
Macbeth will run in repertory through September 23. A prologue (pre-show) discussion will take place on Sunday, Aug. 26 from 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tickets to performances range from $15 to $48. Premium seating is available for $60. Children 4 and under are free. 
Pay What You Will ticket pricing (cash only at the door) is available on Friday, July 21 at 7:30 p.m.
Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 North Topanga Canyon Blvd. in Topanga, midway between Malibu and the San Fernando Valley. The amphitheater is terraced into the hillside, so audience members are advised to dress casually (warmly for evenings) and bring cushions for bench seating. Patrons are welcome to arrive early to picnic in the gardens before a performance. 
For more information and to purchase tickets, call (310) 455-3723 or visit
A Dream Worth Repeatingx
By Sarah A Spitz

It’s as if William Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream expressly to be performed at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum. A nearly annual production and perennial audience favorite, the play works perfectly in the natural woodland setting of Theatricum’s outdoor amphitheater, mirroring the forest where magic and mayhem unfold over the course of a single night in ancient Athens.
Among the most madcap of Shakespeare’s comedies, this one has it all: The Duke of Athens on the cusp of his wedding to the Queen of the Amazon (whom he has conquered but truly loves); the “mechanicals” (i.e. laborers) as amateur actors, hoping to win the privilege of performing a play at the Duke’s wedding; a father who refuses to let his daughter marry the man she loves, demanding she marry another man, who is deeply loved by another woman; a fairy kingdom whose king and queen are fighting amongst themselves over possession of a little boy, creating unintended mischief for the humans whose world they share.
As a play that’s been performed here year after year, in this 50th Anniversary season of Theatricum Botanicum, this production, directed by Melora Marshall does not disappoint. It’s highly energetic, extremely physical and fun.
We open on Duke Theseus (Danezion “Zeke” Mills) and Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Alexandra Jaime) discussing their upcoming wedding. Egeus (Craig “Linc” Lincoln) bursts into the court for a judgment. He’s father to Hermia (Ashley Maimes), who loves Lysander (Benjamin Church) and he loves her, but Egeus wants Hermia to marry Demetrius (Steven T. Gordon). She wants nothing to do with Demetrius, especially because he’s broken the heart of Helena (Caroline Quigley), who’s long been in love with him. 
Lysander and Hermia decide to run away to the woods; Hermia tells Helena of their plans and Helena tells Demetrius, hoping for his gratitude. Meanwhile at their first rehearsal, Bottom the weaver (Alan Blumenfeld), the most pompous of the amateur players, wants to take on all the roles in the play they hope to perform, called Pyramus and Thisbe, a kind of proto-Romeo and Juliet tale. 
The prankster, Robin Goodfellow, known to all as Puck (Christopher Glenn Gilstrap) decides Bottom needs to live up to his name and turns him, from the neck up, into a donkey (ass). Meanwhile, fairy king Oberon (Jonathan Blandino) takes revenge on Queen Titania (Taylor Jackson Ross) by ordering Puck to find a flower whose drops make a person fall in love with the next thing they see. A sleeping Titania awakens to Bottom as the ass and falls head over heels in love.
Overhearing them arguing in the woods, Oberon wants to bring Helena and Demetrius together, ordering Puck to put the flower drops into the eyes of a man in Athenian garb. It just happens to be the wrong man in Athenian garb (Lysander), so Oberon anoints Demetrius’ eyes. Helena is the first person they both see and begin wooing her, leaving Hermia completely out of the equation, while Helena thinks they’re just playing a big, mean trick on her. 
There’s very little by way of sets: a little wooden prop house atop the stage to the audience’s right becomes the Duke’s palace; a bed to the left will rock Queen Titania to sleep; the hilly paths in the woods behind the stage become a staging ground for the lovers and the fairies who appear and disappear. Audience members are advised to keep their feet out of the aisles because actors will be using them.
All of the actors do a good job, but outstanding in their roles are scene-stealing Alan Blumenfeld as Bottom; his booming voice and rotund presence make him the most-perfectly cast actor for this hilarious and outsized role. The impossibly agile Puck played by Christopher Glenn Gilstrap engages in heart-pounding gymnastics and practically acrobatic movement. Caroline Quigley as Helena and Ashley Maimes as Hermia believably bemoan their lovelorn circumstances while injecting humor into their roles. 
And amongst the amateur players—who ultimately do win the right to perform at the wedding—it’s hard to say who’s the goofiest, but clearly tall, thin, quirky Flute (George Kingston) is chewing the (non-)scenery, dressed in female garb and speaking in a high falsetto as Thisbe, whose moonlight meeting with Pyramus will result in tragedy…an odd way to celebrate a wedding!
My only complaint is that most of the songs in the play are too hard to hear; the actors project their voices well for the text, but the singing disappeared before it reached my ears. It is a shame because the music is strange and lovely and plays a role in the action.
The Canyon Chronicle

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June 23, 2023