Theater Paradise With A Grounding in Reality
Theatricum Botanicum is a Topanga Canyon sanctuary founded by Herta Ware and her husband, theater, film and television actor Will Geer. Will Geer’s social activism in the 1930s and ‘40s and refusal to name names during the McCarthy hearings put him on the Blacklist and had a significant impact on the family’s life.
For 45 years, since Will Geer’s death in 1978, his eldest daughter Ellen Geer has successfully filled the open-air complex with theater professionals, students and audience members. In addition to serving as the theater’s artistic director, she writes, acts and directs. This year is Theatricum’s 50th anniversary season.
It dates even farther back to the 1950s, when the Geers acquired the property. At the time, Ellen Geer says, the place was known as Geer Gardens. Since her father was blacklisted, he put his botany degree to work—with a side of entertainment. “We were putting on music and Americana like Huck Finn and Walt Whitman. I think that’s because people had been so wounded by the country [due to the Blacklist].”
Geer recalls, “After we [three] kids grew up, we made our living all over the country, but in the ‘70s we all came back and landed in this healing place. Pop was making a lot of money doing [popular 1970s TV drama] The Waltons. That allowed him to start the theater. After he passed, we put our heads together and decided to continue. We looked to Joseph Papp’s incredible Shakespeare in the Park for inspiration. After all, royalties are expensive.”
Theatricum Botanicum continues to mount three Shakespeare productions every year, as well as a non-Shakespeare production. This year, it’s Terrence McNally’s A Perfect Ganesh, in which Geer stars with her sister, Melora Marshall.
Geer explains, “We look for the best stories to help people with what’s going on in our society. In A Perfect Ganesh, white people see how people in India survive and how different it is. I think it’s important to see how we fit into the whole. Look what’s happening with the refugees.”
While the Mark Taper Forum is ceasing production for a year and its parent, Center Theatre Group, is experiencing layoffs, Theatricum Botanicum thrives. Ellen Geer notes, “When organizations get too highly staffed, it overburdens the people you were doing it for in the first place, the actors. Theatricum is an artist-thrust organization, which is hard to do in this country. It’s a team, it’s how you live, and what you spread out into the community.” The theater has 37 Actors Equity contracts.
Geer says, “You can’t replace the human experience of sitting next to other people and sharing theater.” And that’s especially true at Theatricum Botanicum.
Review: A Perfect Ganesh
Sisters Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall star in Terrence McNally’s sprawling A Perfect Ganesh on the just as sprawling stage at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum. They play middle-aged friends from Connecticut, Katharine (Geer) and Margaret (Marshall), traveling to India to seek spiritual comfort for the tragedies that have begun to overwhelm them.
Katharine and Margaret are accompanied by Ganesh (Mueen Jahan), a Hindu deity with the head of an elephant. As a god of love and a remover of obstacles, Ganesh is an excellent travel companion. As a narrator and context-provider he’s also useful to audience members.
Magic is in the air as Ganesh proclaims his omnipresent happiness; the magic dissipates, as it must in an airport, when the friends struggle with luggage and logistics at the Air India counter. Uplifting spiritual experiences and worldly problems alternate throughout the play: liver spots, travel woes, illness and coping with death threaten to overwhelm the quest for a higher level of consciousness—or even a few minutes without worry.
Rajiv Shah seamlessly transitions between several roles, including Katharine’s son and a fellow traveler. Shivani Thakkar is a female spirit whose ethereal and accomplished dances beautifully punctuate the story. An ensemble of five fills the stage, silently adding depth and context to this fish-out-of-water tale of two Americans fettered by pain and closemindedness slowly gain awareness and find peace.
The 50th anniversary season of Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., is underway, with performances of Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Queen Margaret’s Version of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses, adapted and directed by Ellen Geer from multiple Shakespeare plays. This year’s non-Shakespeare production is A Perfect Ganesh, which runs through Oct. 7. And there’s a 50th anniversary gala fundraiser, honoring Debbie Allen, on August 5, hosted by Wendie Malick and Pamela Adlon with performances by Beau Bridges, members of the Theatricum Company and surprise guests. For more information on all Theatricum events, click here.
Highly recommended for additional context is a visit to the Skirball’s fascinating exhibit Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare, on view through Sept. 3, 2023.
The tomato behind The Three Tomatoes.
Cheryl Benton, aka the “head tomato” is founder and publisher of The Three Tomatoes, a digital lifestyle magazine for “women who aren’t kids”. Having lived and worked for many years in New York City, the land of size zero twenty-somethings, she was truly starting to feel like an invisible woman. She created The Three Tomatoes just for the fun of it as the antidote for invisibility and sent it to 60 friends. Today she has thousands of friends and is chief cheerleader for smart, savvy women who want to live their lives fully at every age and every stage. She is the author of the novel, "Can You See Us Now?" and co-author of a humorous books of quips, "Martini Wisdom." Because she's lived a long time, her full bio won't fit here. If you want the "blah, blah, blah", read more. www.thethreetomatoes.com/about-the-head-tomato