‘The Winter’s Tale’ on a Spring night

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Theatricum Botanicum, the regional treasure nestled under verdant oaks deep in Topanga Canyon, began its 51st season Saturday evening with a radiant production of "The Winter’s Tale."

‘The Winter’s Tale’ on a Spring night

Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga kicks off 51st season 

William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” is one of the bard’s trickier plays. Originally published in the First Folio at the end of the Comedies, it has been variously categorized over the years as a late romance, a pastoral, and a problem play. Perhaps in today’s parlance it would be considered a mash-up, a late play that navigates abrupt tonal shifts and contains the most famous (infamous?) stage direction in the English theater: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

Theatricum Botanicum, the regional treasure nestled under verdant oaks deep in Topanga Canyon, began its 51st season Saturday evening with a radiant production of “The Winter’s Tale.” Under the steady direction of Ellen Geer, daughter of Theatricum’s founders Will Geer and Herta Ware, the cast, which included three generations of the Geer family, ably navigated the play’s various turns. In a featured role, newcomer Sophia Dawson is exuberant as Perdita, a lost princess who reemerges in triumph. The company offers the opportunity to experience one of Shakespeare’s less-frequently performed and more complex plays in the extraordinary outdoor setting of Theatricum Botanicum. 

Echoing the work’s journey from tragedy to happy ending (which includes a severe rain storm, natch), the premiere marked the last day of the road closure of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, which will hopefully ensure a successful repertory season for the venerable institution. The other four plays in rotation throughout the summer will include “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Wendy’s Peter Pan,” a retelling by Ellen Geer of the timeless J.M. Barrie classic, “Tartuffe: Born Again,” an adaptation of the Moliere comedy, and a new play by Bernardo Cubria, “The Hispanic/Latino/Latina/Latinx/LatineVote.” Rounding out the season is the Under the Oaks series, ending with a tribute to Point Dume’s own Bob Dylan on Sept. 27 with several special guest performances.  

Visitors to Theatricum Botanicum this summer will also have the opportunity to explore The Shelter, a newly opened museum with various exhibits that help tell the story of Theatricum’s founding and early years, with items curated from the Woody Guthrie Foundation and the Geer family collection. 

Woody Guthrie, who played many concerts at the Theatricum along with Pete Seeger, will also be honored on Aug. 3 at the theater’s annual gala, Echoes in the Forest, hosted this year by actors Wendy Malick and Keith Carradine. The presentation of the Will Geer Humanitarian Award, bestowed annually since 2015, to Woody Guthrie will be accepted by his grandson, Berkeley-based artist Damon Guthrie. It is awarded to an individual who epitomizes and advances human welfare and social justice championed by Will Geer in his lifetime.

As has often been recounted, the origins of the Theatricum Botanicum date to Will Geer’s blacklisting by Hollywood in the 1950s after refusing to name persons who had joined the Communist Party in testimony before Joseph McCarthy’sHouse Un-American Activities Committee. Geer and his wife, fellow actor Herta Ware, built a performance space on their Topanga property as a refuge for fellow blacklisted artists, while Will (who had a Master’s degree in horticulture from the University of Chicago) and his family supported themselves by cultivating and selling vegetables, fruit, and herbs grown on the large property. In tribute to The Bard, Geer made sure every plant mentioned in Shakespearean writing was grown on the acreage surrounding the outdoor amphitheater.

Best known for his role as Zebulon (Zeb) Walton in the wildly successful 1970s TV series “The Waltons,” Will Geer had a long and varied acting career dating from the early 1930s. Malibu residents may be interested in watching a 1966 film,”Seconds,” which starred Rock Hudson in a rare dramatic role and Geer in support. The film, directed by John Frankenheimer, was filmed largely at Frankenheimer’s own Malibu Colony home.

Initially panned and later rediscovered, Frankenheimer once remarked, “It’s the only film I know that has gone from failure to classic — without ever being a success.” It is worth seeing if for no other reason than the extraordinary and chilling performance by Geer, and currently is streaming on The Criterion Channel and Kanopy.

Theatricum Botanicum’s 2024 repertory season runs through Oct. 20.

Theatricum sign. Photo courtesy Theatricum Botancium
A sign welcomes visitors to Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga. Photo Courtesy of Theatricum Botanicum