THE PLAY’S THE THING

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Ellen Geer and Annette Bening get theatrical in Topanga.

It was a starry night at the Mountain Mermaid Topanga estate of Bill Buerge as acting buffs turned out for the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum’s spring fling. Amid a glorious sunset and breathtaking canyon views, they snacked on lobster cakes with chipotle sauce and asparagus crostini drizzled with white truffle oil while talking shop about the upcoming season.

Oscar nominee Annette Bening looked every bit the relaxed multitasking mom in her comfy slacks and sensible shoes. Geer’s grandson, 11-month-old Liam, made his debut sporting a tux and red tennies while thespian James Avery dazzled in a snazzy beige and cream striped linen suit paired with a banana-yellow silk tie.

“The Botanicum was the first place I got a job in L.A.,” he recalled. “I never planned to go to L.A. I never planned to go to Hollywood. But this is where they were doing Shakespeare.”

No doubt about it, Mister James is big on the bard. “Shakespeare tells you how to handle the word. It’s all about you and the word. When you meet people who share that, it’s an exciting experience.”

Host Bill Buerge meantime was happy to recount stories of his property’s colorful history. “It was a country club in the 1930s, a clandestine gambling casino managed by mobster Mickey Cohen in the 1940s, a gay bar in the ’50s, then the Mermaid CafĂ© of Joni Mitchell fame.” He went on to sing a few lines from “Carrie,” which immortalized the establishment. Equally historic is the Botanicum, which was started by actor Will Geer in the 1950s. “He was a blacklisted actor,” explained Kim Zanti, “and he created a dirt stage for other blacklisted Hollywood actors.”

The outdoor theater has evolved into one of L.A.’s most loved venues for “The Merchant of Venice,” “Romeo and Juliet” and, of course, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “We always do ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,'” Zanti explained. “It’s a tradition. It’s our Christmas Carol.”

The place also offers community and education programs for theater lovers of all ages. “We have become this vortex at Will Geer; the Topanga community, the acting community, the political community all coming together.”

The Botanicum is a big draw for those with a green thumb. At one time, it boasted each and every one of the hundreds of plants named in Shakespeare’s prolific body of work. The dream is to do that again. “That’s why there is a gardener on our wish list,” explained Ellen Geer.

Until then, we can enjoy the flower filled surroundings and take in this year’s program, which includes “Fashion” and “The Ride Down Mount Morgan” as well as Shakespeare’s “Othello” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

As dusk turned to night, we made our way into the dining room for a delightful evening of the spoken word, music and song.

For added sparkle, servers made the rounds with bottles of bubbly to toast a night of good cheer, the actors, the music and all things Geer.