A Midsummer Night's Dream 

Photo by Ian Flanders

Theatricum Botanicum

There is nothing that serves as a more inspirational example of artistic resiliency in the history of Los Angeles theatre than Theatricum Botanicum’s annual presentation of Shakespeare’s most charming and well-loved fantasy A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It was 1973 when Will Geer and his wife Herta Ware decided to open their bucolic secluded Topanga Canyon estate to the public and offer the Bard’s most enduring classic to inaugurate their open-air performance space carved into the side of a wooded canyon ravine under a canopy of majestic and perfectly placed oak trees. Is there a quote in the vast Shakespearean lexicon having something to say about things that are meant to be?

Nestled in the richly verdant natural setting where Geer and many of his Hollywood colleagues fled in 1953 to escape the destructive aftermath of Joe McCarthy’s blacklisting witchhunt, Theatricum Botanicum was an ambitious attempt to create a repertory company focused on presenting the great classics of theatrical literature in such a remote and special setting—and their quintessential mounting of Midsummer  has been the cornerstone of the ensemble’s much-anticipated summer season for the past 48 years.

Although I have not seen Midsummer  presented here for well over a decade, I remembered fondly that my favorite time to schedule a trip up the canyon was to attend one of the early evening shows, where the magic of the familiar tale begins to unfold while the sun slowly sets and the enveloping woods surrounding the stage come alive with shadows of curious bats and the songs of frogs and crickets, as well as Zachary Moore’s dreamlike lighting as Queen Titania (played by the show’s perennial director Melora Marshall) and her otherworldly band of tittering extraterrestrials descend from the hilltop high above in costumer Beth Eslick’s glittering, gossamer fairy-wear.

Under the leadership of Marshall, Ware’s daughter who grew up performing on this very stage while living here in her family’s idyllic Topanga enclave, there is a broadly kinetic, palpably tongue-in-cheek appreciation for and homage to ol’ Will’s most delightful and entertaining classic which permeates this welcoming return to Midsummer,  something obviously elaborated upon and polished by the director over the years to a sparkling sheen.

The smoothly quirky physical comedy—presumably some “bits” perfected while continuously reviving Theatricum’s signature event every 12 months for nearly a half-century, some surely added by the eager castmembers of this current incarnation—is the key to unlocking the wonders of this production and providing an overlying refreshing sense of absolution that easily transcends any roughness and unevenness in the playing style and general professionalism of the cast.

Theatricum employs a handful of AEA contracts each season, several of the Equity performers part of the hardworking Geer clan while other roles are usually fulfilled by longtime ensemble members who have returned each season for as long as two decades. Still, it is the inclusion of other notable LA performers who appear here almost as unspoken “guest artists” that so uniquely energizes these productions.

Other roles are assayed by less seasoned actors, some cast from the local community and many others artists being groomed from the ranks of Theatricum’s many workshops and classes for both children and young adults. The result can occasionally be rocky but ironically for even the most demanding of theatrical purists, it matters not a whit—all is forgiven while enfolded in the enchanted spirit of Will and Herta’s passionate dream so fiercely maintained by their talented and prolific descendants.

The most exciting thing about this year’s return to Midsummer’s  convoluted romp through the haunted woods of Athens is the casting of world-renowned Shakespearean master Lisa Wolpe, founder of the LA Women’s Shakespeare Company and a guest artist-lecturer who has literally toured the globe playing the Bard’s most powerful male characters. Wolpe is simply magnificent as Oberon, legendary Renaissance-era King of the Fairies, giving the role a depth and import that completely commands and energizes the stage with her every appearance. Hers is the definition of quintessential Shakespeare, a performance that rivals the work of my favorite Oberon of all time, Sir Ian McKellan.

Longtime Theatricum mainstays Earnestine Phillips and Thad Geer are well-seasoned assets as the play’s resident buffoons Quince and Bottom, impressively leading their hilarious band of “rude mechanicals” ready to perform Midsummer’s  infamously clunky play-within-a-play with a great sense of comedic abandon, while the most impressive turn in the promising youthful performer-on-the-rise sweepstakes comes from Sara Mountjoy-Pepka, who dazzlingly assays the role of the gangly, lovelorn Helena with a little bit Lucille Ball, a little bit Meryl Streep, and a whole lotta Sutton Foster.

From the ranks of the huge and deliciously eclectic cast, Terrence Wayne Jr. brings a fascinating new contemporary spin to that mischievous forest sprite Puck, even breaking into a bit of hip-hop which works surprisingly well with iambic pentameter, and in an impressively sweet and achingly charming stage debut, the teeny-tiny puppydog-ish Aarush Mehta as the Changeling Boy is surely the cutest and most endearing woodland creature since Bambi.

I could not be more pleased to return to Theatricum Botanicum twice this summer, a place everyone needs to visit whenever they need a little dose of theatrical sorcery and give themselves a respite from the daily horrors of the evening news and revel once again in the resiliency of art and artists, clearly the last people on our troubled planet not ready to totally give up on the future.

THROUGH NOV. 7: Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. 310.455.3723 or www.theatricum.com

Me as Bottom, 1965, age 18... jus' cuzz

The Last, Best Small Town 

Photo by Ian Flanders

Theatricum Botanicum

There is no place anywhere in SoCal as enchanted as Theatricum Botanicum, the boundlessly prolific seasonal open-air theatre company established nearly a half-century ago on the grounds of Will Geer’s Topanga Canyon mountain retreat, the place where the actor had to move in the 1950s when his blacklisting by that Trump-prequel destroyer Joseph McCarthy shredded his career in film.

There, along with many other friends facing the same fate—including Woody Guthrie, who lived out his life there in the small mud hut he built himself which still stands to greet visitors near the entrance to the canyon’s natural wooded amphitheater as a testament to the indomitability of the human spirit—the Geer family established a ragtag artists’ colony where the members, made up of once highly respected and established Hollywood artists, collectively survived their life-altering ordeal by selling homegrown produce on the highway.

Through the years and thanks to the unstoppable dedication to the performing arts by Will’s former late wife Herta Ware and under the scrappy artistic direction of his daughter Ellen, Theatricum has become established as one of the most unique performance arts venues anywhere in the country. Each summer, the complex presents several classic plays performed in repertory with an emphasis on the Shakespearean classics Ware and Geer championed fiercely.

Usually however, the season includes one contemporary piece—customarily a world premiere—and this season is no exception. Los Angeles-based Latinx playwright John Guerra’s The Last, Best Small Town  is a clever updating of Thornton Wilder’s enduring 1938 classic drama Our Town,  spanning the years between 2005 and 2009 all wound up in the intertwined lives of a pair of ethnically-disparate neighboring families occupying adjacent homes in the nearby Ventura County town of Fillmore.

The stuff of their lives through the years, with an emphsis on the culturally-diverse problems facing the two families, are overseen from the future perspective of the character of the playwright himself, the traditional Grover’s Corners stage manager role here gratefully assigned to and in the always-capable hands of Leonardo Cano, another true LA theatrical treasure.

As the early years of the new century unfold, the storyline Cano recounts directly to the audience centers around the blossoming love between young Maya Miller and her neighbor Elliot Gonzalez (Jordan Tyler Kessler and Kelvin Morales) as they grow from bratty childhood into their coming of age teen years as they attempt to quell their teenage angst and raging hormones in a world that in the early days of our fucked-up 21st century can no longer offer them the Golden Ticket to our country’s long-lost and sorrowfully lamented American Dream.

There is often at Theatricum Botanicum an oddly overlooked unevenness in the performing styles of the actors, something that can not only usually be forgiven but even embraced if it’s in a production of one of Shakespeare’s or Oscar Wilde’s often operetic classics where overemoting and the exaggerated projecting of voices in an effort to reach the back bleachers high up in the hillside is indeed part of the charm. In more contemporary faire, this theatrical conceit instead tends to hinder the performance. Under Ellen Geer’s direction, so well established on this stage over the years, the individual work is unfortunately glaringly spotty.

The pearl-clutching melancholy and wistful expressions, delivered directly above the high canyon-y place where the audience is sure to see the emotional trauma of the members of the two otherwise highly endearing families, is overshadowed by the intensely realistic and more naturalistic work of other castmembers—particularly the amazingly simple and highly grounded performance of Cano which provides the theatrical glue holding everything together despite any inherent internal flaws in Guerra's script.

This welcoming simplicity is also true of the three actors cast as the male members of the Gonzalez family: the proud and hard-working patriarch played lovingly by Richard Azurdia, Morales as the conflicted son bursting with a need to find a new way to live without his parents’ sacrificing everything to make it so, and especially a highly memorable turn by Miguel Perez as the clan’s ne’er-do-well and often drunken grandfather—someone who through his troubles still appears to have more sense than any other character in the piece besides his grandson.

As with most first productions of a worthy play, The Last, Best Small Town,  although fascinating in its look into the cultural inequities of contemporary life, is also in need of further finetuning. Guerra, of both Boyle Heights Mexican and midwestern Caucasian ancestry, surely has the beginnings of a wonderful new contemporary American classic, especially noteworthy for his crisp and often exceedingly clever tongue-in-cheek dialogue, as well as his insight into both cultures here clashing over the families’ backyard fences.

There is also a rather blatant predictability in the situations unfolding in his heartfelt play and I would imagine there are very few audience members who, by the end of Act One, have not already anticipated what the surprise twist finishing the act is going to be. This is also true of the play’s climatic scene, which is not only predictable but underwritten, leaving us both unsurprised by events unfolding between the young lovers and disappointed the ending is not more uniquely satisfying.

Some of this could be forgiven if indeed Guerra takes a little time and delves more deeply into the unfortunate inequitable issues fostered by the two families’ societal differences instead of just hinting at them throughout the piece—and me'thinks this particular highly promising new playwright is the perfect guy to take them on headfirst.

THROUGH NOV. 6: Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. 310.455.3723 or www.theatricum.com

Hershey Felder: Nicholas, Anna & Sergei 

I have respectfully declined reviewing all the heartfelt online streaming presentations offered us these past difficult months by theatre companies trying to remain active and relevant through the pandemic. It’s not the work, promise—it’s me.

I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this in print but personally, I have an always been challenged when it comes to the art of film. Ask anyone who has ever been to a play with me and I'll bet they'll confirm that never once have I ever fallen asleep in a theatre, but stick me in front of a movie screen and I'm usually out like a light in about 25 minutes. This is not something of which I'm proud, but it is the truth. See, I think having been obsessed with and intent on creating (and supporting) theatre since the age of three when I was coaxed onstage in a summer run of Oklahoma!  to belt out lyrics about “carrots and pertaters,” my priorities began to germinate early on. That’s 71 years, if anyone who knows me is busy doing the math.

I have always had difficulty concentrating on film, finding it hard to care or relate to something stored in a can, the performances languishing there etched in cement and never allowed the spontaneity of live performance that makes my heart sing. This is surely the major reason why, despite coming to Hollywood a few hundred years ago under contract to a major film studio, I stupidly chose to fuckitup bigtime and instead focus on a stage career in a town that basically couldn’t care less about theatre.

So, despite eliciting the disappointment of many of my colleagues creating incredible online art over the past year, I have eschewed reviewing online performances even more wholeheartedly than I have over the years during which I have declined numerous offers to become a film reviewer, something I’m sure would have provided me a far more profitable career if I wasn’t such a stubborn fellow. I like to think of myself as passionate about art, but sadly my passions have limitations guaranteed to be surprising to most people.

That said, the remarkable and prolific Mr. Hershey Felder, one of my all-time favorite theatre artists, has chosen over the past 14-plus months to not quietly sit at home in Florence, Italy, staring at his historic villa’s sweeping views and to continue to create art as no one else on the planet could make happen. This began with a live streamed performance of his amazing George Gershwin Alone, his first of 11 such events offered online since we all went into our collective lockdown. I first saw Hershey’s magical solo turn playing the great man and accompanying himself on the piano over 20 years ago, debuting here in LA at the long-gone Tiffany Theatre and proving to be a career-making moment that subsequently made the guy famous.

Hershey’s return as Gershwin, shot live at his Florence home in the dead of night so it could debut live here at 5pm on a Sunday afternoon, was pure electricity. This was followed by recreating several other of his mesmerizing performances in his globally acclaimed “Composer Sonata” series, including turns as Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Debussy, and his indelibly memorable performance as Irving Berlin broadcast from a gloriously grand old Florence theatre complete with a oddly charming 400-year-old creaking wooden stage floor.

Since filming his previous successful touring solo performances live from Italy, Hershey has courageously begun to experiment with more self-produced filmic presentations never before seen on the world stage. These included brand new turns as Puccini, featuring a troupe of opera stars appearing opposite him that energized the new direction of his unique musical creations as never before, followed by Before Fiddler, chronicling the life and origins of the work of Shalom Aleichem—and including sweetly charming versions of the writer’s early folk tales.

The main thing to be impressed with here has been the exquisite and painstakingly constructed production values energizing these new filmed creations, including richly evocative montages of lush European imagery as the show's multitalented creator simultaneously gifts his grateful audiences with his worldclass skills as a concert pianist.

Hershey’s latest creation debuted online recently (and as with all his previous streaming efforts partially benefitting the many mid-sized theatres here in the states that have been his artistic homes over the years) and it emerged as one of the most impressive contributions to the filmed “Composer Sonata” offerings yet. Based on the script he was perfecting to begin touring last summer before the pandemic stopped it cold, Nicholas, Anna & Sergei, documenting the life and musical genius of Sergei Rachmaninoff, is even more beautifully produced and filmed than its predecessors.

Although it’s ever-brave and always-inventive creator originally conceived Nicholas, Anna & Sergei as a solo show with him ambitiously appearing as all the characters, the film version instead features Hershey as the title character opposite J. Anthony Crane as the ghost of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Helen Farrell as Anna Anderson, the real-life mystery woman who professed to be the lone survivor of the Romanov dynasty, the Tsar’s daughter Anastasia, as well as Ekaterina Siurina as Rachmaninoff’s wife Natalia and Igor Polesitsky as the doctor who treats the composer as he lies dying at his final home in Beverly Hills.

Co-directed by Hershey and Italian cinematographer Stefano DeCarli, their highly personalized production is majestically, lavishly presented, giving us a fascinating insight into the tumultuous world of the Russian-born composer who spent his life mourning his furtive flight from his homeland. His dreams are haunted by the ghost of the dispatched Tsar as Sergei laments his life choices, admitting that his work had suffered for it. “Melody,” we’re told in Hershey’s tale, “abandoned him when he left Russia for the USA.” There is a hint of redemption when he meets and financially champions Anderson until he more and more begins to question the validity of her story, all of which is admitted to the phantom Nicholas as the composer lies dying at 610 N. Elm Drive, the home Rachmaninoff prophetically said would be the place where he would die the minute he saw it.

Hershey’s gossamer, lyrical, painstakingly researched script is most arresting part of Nicholas, Anna & Sergei, especially when he then turns to the piano and in detail identifies familiar moments in the great man’s work that inspired the dulcet, hypnotic compositions that will remain timeless contributions to the history of music.

There are definite pros and cons to experiencing Hershey’s musical artistry online, although I don’t recommend trying to watch it (with streaming issues no less) on a cellphone as I did the first time—and I have to thank one Mr. Felder himself for asking me to watch it again on a bigger screen utilizing a better link he sent me. This was great advice, particularly when considering the teeny-weeny iPhone-sized subtitles flashed onscreen during the film’s scenes spoken in Russian.

The pros obviously include the sweeping cinemagraphic images, the detailed costuming, and the employment of some dynamic actors and an amazing full symphony-sized uniformly masked orchestra. Still, the best thing to me was being able to see Hershey’s hands in closeup as he masterfully interpreted the music of Rachmaninoff—although I have to admit I did miss hearing the compositions ring out live in a darkened auditorium fitted for excellent sound rather than through my computer’s tinny speakers.

The bold new direction of Hershey Felder’s brilliance soars to new heights with Nicholas, Anna & Sergei and, since he has recently teased that an announcement of an entire new season of more such courageous artistic experimentation is in the works for next year, if you haven’t returned to civilization quite yet, I suggest you take the time to explore the wonders of this unstoppable artist’s unique online performances of the last year, available for viewing with Video on Demand at www.hersheyfelder.net.


See? I’m an angel!