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Posts tagged as “Ellen geer”

The Chalk Garden Revival: The Wit, Wisdom and Whoppers of Ellen Geer, Melora Marshall And Carmen Flood

Special To Topanga Journal

Enid Bagnold (1889-1981) premiered the play The Chalk Garden on Broadway in 1955 at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. It is a drawing room comedy mostly about the interaction of three ladies.

Kriss Perras headshot by Alan Weissman

By Kriss Perras

“There are so many intertwining themes and ideas in this multi-layered play,” said Susan Angelo, who directs members of the Geer family in this revival of The Chalk Garden. “It’s about the old guard giving way to the new, about fostering or stagnating growth, about the search for justice and how the truth ultimately sets us free. The relationships are human and complex. Beneath the comic English manner style, there is mystery, jealousy and deep longing. So many secrets and a lot of intrigue.”

“It’s about the old guard giving way to the new, about fostering or stagnating growth, about the search for justice and how the truth ultimately sets us free.” Susan Angelo, Director

Mrs. St. Maugham (Ellen Geer) is an upper class woman from another era in British society with masters and servants. Geer was in top form in her role as a dowager whose main occupation was gardening in harsh chalk soil on the surrounding property and caring for her troubled teenage granddaughter, Laurel (Carmen Flood). She was a natural fit for the role. She had a command of the character that was mesmerizing. Bagnold uses Maugham’s eccentricity to implicitly condemn post Edwardian snobbery and all the class struggle that went with it. Geer manages all these themes so eloquently. One particular line she tosses out with her hand flinging in the air toward her character’s daughter marks this so well, ”How can you wear beige with your skin that color?”

One of our very own, Topangan Carmen Flood, had an absolutely pitch perfect performance as the character Laurel in the opening night performance. Going into a Theatricum Botanicum play, one expects a certain level of gravitas from Geer and Melora Marshall. They’re seasoned performers, and they have wowed us before. We expected they would do so again–and they did. Flood, however, is up and coming talent. Her execution with wit, wisdom and whoppers was fabulous! She even brought such ideas through in her body language, hands, lilt of an eyebrow and curl of her lip.

Miss Madrigal, played by Marshall, had an outstanding performance. When we entered the theater Marshall was already on stage sitting in place. She stared forward as though no audience existed. She was just another applicant waiting for the lady of the house to call her forward for an interview. Miss Madrigal was there to be hired as a governess, to help raise Laurel. We find out Miss Madrigal has a green thumb too. Marshall expertly weaved her little lies with a silver tongue as Miss Madrigal. Far from from being a frightened little servant, she defies her employer several times. When the characters Laurel is hot on Miss Madrigal’s trail to find out her “hidden past,” Miss Madrigal gives her a shrewd smile and says, “You take my breath away.” Just as Bagnold’s National Velvet contained doubleness and disguise in putting forth a little girl who rides a $10 pony and wins the Grand National dressed as a boy, so too does the nanny in this story, Miss Madrigal, have a double and concealed past that slowly comes to light.

The three ladies lobbed comedic lines back and forth across stage with the grace of opera singers sharing a melody. They were so in touch with the other’s character the fluidity of the dialogue drew the audience into the characters’ world. The audience laughed more at this opening night than this writer has ever seen at Theatricum. It was a well received performance.

It would be unjust not to mention the well executed performances of Michael Nehring, as Maitland, and William Dennis Hunt, as the Judge. Nehring played a nervous and something of a Freudian influence in the play as a valet, or butler. He brings out the psychoanalytic side of the characters by his own dysfunctionalities. “I can’t stand criticism!” Maitland cries. He psychoanalyzes the character Laurel during her sometimes tender moments, and at other times childish and still other mad moments where she wishes to do harm.

If Hunt with all of his years of acting had not performed to the level he did, it would have been a huge disappointment. As soon as he entered the stage his face was known and presence filled the room. He has a certain je ne sais quois that fills the theater. His voice is booming and emotive projection voluminous. His character had one liners that set the tone for certain scenes that were the apex of the middle leg of the play. His character may not have the most stage time, but it is an important role that a lesser talent would have not pulled off as well.

The play is in keeping with the socially conscious theater the stage set out to accomplish this season. Bagnold wrote the play when she was 64. Freudian psychology was very much a part of popular thinking during her lifetime. She wrote edgy dialogue meant to dig into and make the audience feel uneasy about class bigotry and mother-daughter Freudian dysfunction. The character Laurel’s mother has divorced and remarried, leaving Laurel with her wounds, feeling abandoned and neglected. Mrs. Maugham teaches Laurel to hate her mother. The daughter, Olivia, is self centered and does not even bother to visit her child, Laurel, for four years, but shows back up once she is again pregnant with another child. The pregnancy again sparks angst in Laurel if there is room for her in her mother’s life. There was so much intensity of feeling between the actors that alone brought out the humanity of the characters. Slick delivery of lines and a sly glance here and there gave just deep enough subtext to the portrayal of each that the world Bagnold wrote came alive. It is a biting humor.

The Chalk Garden received after its original performance several Tony nominations, including best play. It’s London debut was at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in April 1956. There is a film version that premiered 1964, which received Academy Award nominations. There is a BBC Radio adaptation. There have been several revivals of this play since its first debut.


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Clash Of Politics And The People In Theatricum’s Coriolanus With Epic Sword Fights

by Kriss Perras

There are seven deadly sins, or capital vices: greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, sloth and pride. It is of these Shakespeare writes most often, the startling array of human emotions. Taking a slice out of Shakespeare’s canon, for Hamlet, it is wrath. For Othello, take your pick: lust, wrath, envy, sloth and we could keep going. In King Lear it is greed and any combination of the others. In Romeo and Juliette, it is even worse. We get hybrids of the seven deadly sins. For Coriolanus, it is pride.

This summer Theatricum Botanicum’s searing drama Coriolanus is performed on the theater’s wooded outdoor stage with a very large cast of 45. David DeSantos played the title role with the emotional outbursts of an overindulged child. Ellen Geer played the iron willed Vulumnia, Coriolanus’ mother. Geer was moving and emotive, backstabbing and creepy as a would-be girlfriend to her son. Melora Marshall played Senator Menenius Agrippa. She was outstanding as an ambitious aristocrat who uses her white robes, clever tongue and great wit to avoid conflict. Max Lawrence payed Aufidius, the Volscian General and Coriolanus’ rival in warfare. Lawrence had a sense of power and commanding jealousy in his role as Aufidius. Dane Oliver plays a Volscian Lieutenant and interacts frequently with DeSantos’ Coriolanus as both friend and foe — both times seemingly not be trusted. The two had both a great enmity and brotherhood chemistry.

Everyone played a large part on the huge Theatricum stage. There were long time actors like Geer, Marshall and DeSantos and young actors like Geer’s grandchild Quinnlym Scheppner who are playing in Coriolanus too. This acting troupe performed intricate sword fighting stunts. These were epic scenes that covered the entire stage area from forest to audience to theater doors. The entire theater became part of the story. Actors even sat next to audience members and interacted with them. Actors broke the fourth wall and interacted with the audience, little aside jokes Shakespeare wrote into the dialogue that no doubt his audience too had great fun with.

Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s most political play written for the Blackfriars stage. The King’s Men, originally called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men with Shakespeare as the company’s principal dramatist, owned Blackfriars Theater beginning in 1608. The theater was originally built in 1596 by the famous actor Richard Burbage who played all of Shakespeare’s title roles, Hamlet, Othello, Richard III and King Lear. Blackfriars was very soon to become London’s premiere theater. It was situated along the Northern bank of the Thames.

Public theaters of Shakespeare’s day had no roofs that catered to the lower classes. Blackfriars was a private theater with clientele of the upper social classes. This meant Blackfriars was built on church grounds with money that had belonged to the Monarch, King Henry VIII. It was a large theater that seated 700. It had artificial lighting and other amenities of private theaters, but also the trap doors and wires and belts to hang props and lower the actors same as the public theaters.

Shakespeare gave a performance to his Elizabethan audience depicting political leadership that had just transitioned from Monarchy to a Republic in Roman Society. Coriolanus is based on a true story just after the period of the expulsion of Rome’s last Monarch, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, and the establishment of the Res Publica Romana, the Roman Republic. At the opening of the play we are about a decade after this time. The transition from Monarchy to Republic created a power struggle between the classes, the Patrician class and the Plebian Class.

Theatericum Botanicums performance of Coriolanus is timely. It depicts how our values are being tested today. This is Shakespeare’s allegory that is still relevant today. The moral and political hidden meanings of this story are a timeless metaphor about today’s real world issues. Theatricum really delivers its socially conscious message with this play. There are no heroes in Coriolanus. There are only emotional moments that deliver a cautionary tale Shakespeare intended to be timeless. History repeats itself must have been known to him back then. The performance of the play is a reminder to us of that phrase today.

June 2 – September 23, 2018
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Topanga, CA 90290

Theatricum’s The Crucible: A Parable of Mass Hysteria, Revenge and Witch Hunts

Special To Topanga Journal

From out of the dark of the theater comes the stillness of a child lying in bed. She is dressed in white with her bed cap on. We’re in Puritan America where the act of naming a neighbor results in either their death, or yours. This is Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible, directed by Theatricum Botanicum’s Ellen Geer.

Kriss Perras headshot by Alan Weissman

By Kriss Perras

This is a timely tale during today’s era of fake news, immigrants being visited by authorities for speaking a foreign language in a land, where unless you’re a Native American Indian, you and your family too are a family of immigrants. The play is especially meaningful to Geer since the theater and its history was born from the McCarthy era Hollywood blacklist. This is when Will Geer, Ellen Geer’s father, found himself the subject of the Hollywood witch hunt. This began with the Hollywood Ten: Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner, Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Sam Omitz, Robert Adrian Scott and Dalton Trumbo.

“Arthur Miller wrote the play that was inspired by the 1950’s McCarthy hearings. It is based on the historical accounts of the Salem witch trials.”

The Ten were called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) as to whether or not they were Communist Party members. The Committee wanted to know if the work they were doing was Communist inspired. When the Ten refused to testify stating the Committee was violating their rights, they ended up in jail for up to a year with a $1,000 fine and were blacklisted. That list grew to 150 names and was around through the 1960’s. But the tale turns even worse, much like the tale in The Crucible does. There was a second list, the Gray list created by former FBI agents. Titled The Report Of Communist Influence In Radio And Television, by the time that witch hunt was finished there were some 500 names being named.

In The Crucible the story begins with a love triangle. A Farmer named John Proctor has a few months prior to the start of the story committed adultery with a younger woman named Abigail. John turns from his ways and is again faithful, and sincerely so, to his wife. As the story goes, he is sorry he was unfaithful and is trying to make it up to his wife and regain her trust. That road is hard going though. Abigail on the other hand is out in the woods with Tituba, who conjures spirits with the town’s girls. They’re dancing naked in the woods, and Abigail is casting spells of death on John’s wife, Elizabeth, when Reverend Parris catches her and the other girls dancing with Tituba. And so begins the terrible weave of lies that starts the naming of names that leads to innocent lives being ruined, and the Puritanical blacklist in America begins.

Arthur Miller wrote the play that was inspired by the 1950’s McCarthy hearings. It is based on the historical accounts of the Salem witch trials. Miller concentrates on the inconsistencies of the trials, and the extreme behavior that results from mass hysteria, revenge and hidden agendas. The paranoid finger pointing resulted in the fear that everyone was a witch. It became a cycle of distrust similar to that of the Cold War and the McCarthy Era. During the Red Scare, the finger pointing resulted in the fear that everyone was a Communist.

As if the plot line in The Crucible wasn’t emotionally charged enough in today’s atmosphere, the cast deserves special applause for their performance that garnered a standing ovation the opening night of June 16. Willow Geer, who played Elizabeth, and Christopher Jones, who played John Proctor, had great chemistry on stage. They expressed the deep pain and sorrow of their lost romance, and the struggle to regain it after the character John’s infidelity and sincere efforts to start again. Jacquelin Schofield, who played Tituba, had a breathtaking performance. She was emotional and plausible. As the audience entered her world, a hush fell over the theater as she cried out her innocence, even though her character was backstabbing everyone in the story.

Mark Lewis, who played Reverend Samuel Parris, this is another talent who had a marvelous night of performance. He made you want to hate him. He accused everyone of being a witch and seemed to enjoy it. He embodied the idea of the Red Scare, that everyone was guilty and for self serving reasons. Melora Marshall was at her best on opening night. She gave an outstanding performance as the innocent character Rebecca Nurse. The acting troupe was at its height on opening night. There wasn’t a sour performance on that stage. Theatricum Botanicum deserves recognition for the training this theater gives its acting talent.

The Crucible is Miller’s most produced play. It originally opened on Broadway’s Martin Beck Theater January 22, 1953 and won a Tony Award for best play. It ran 571 off Broadway performances from 1957-58. A screen adaptation was written in 1996 by Miller starring Daniel Day-Lewis , Winona Rider, Joan Allen and Paul Scofield and was nominated for an Academy Award. Miller is credited alongside Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams for putting American Theater on the world theater map. Miller’s plays include: The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), All My Sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949), A View from the Bridge and A Memory of Two Mondays (1955), After the Fall (1964), Incident at Vichy (1964), The Price (1968), The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972), The Archbishop’s Ceiling (1977) and The American Clock (1980). Later plays include The Ride Down Mt. Morgan (1991), The Last Yankee (1993), Broken Glass (1994), Mr. Peters’ Connections (1998), Resurrection Blues (2002) and Finishing the Picture (2004). Miller won a Pulitzer Prize for Death of A Salesman (1949).


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Theatricum Botanicum’s Season of Socially Conscious Theater

Special To Topanga Journal

We’re lucky to have Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga. It is one of the best theater’s in Los Angeles. There’s never a performance that disappoints. We can thank not only the dedicated talent that performs there, but the theater’s artistic director, Ellen Geer, for continuing her father’s legacy.

Kriss Perras headshot by Alan Weissman

By Kriss Perras

The theater’s beginning’s wind back to the early 1950’s when Will Geer became a victim of McCarthyism and found himself on the Hollywood Blacklist. This Topanga theater was born from the juggernaut of twisted politics spewing from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s lips. Actor Will Geer and his wife, Herta Ware, created a theater as a haven for Blacklisted actors and folk singers on his property here in Topanga. Geer’s friends such as Ford Rainey, John Randolph and Woody Guthrie joined him on the dirt stage for vigorous performances and inspired grassroots activism, while the audiences sat on railroad ties.

“This Topanga theater was born from the juggernaut of twisted politics spewing from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s lips.”

“The Crucible” at Theatricum Photo by Ian Flanders

Theatricum Botanicum is back this season with an exciting summer line-up of socially conscious theater, music and performances. The season includes five plays set to open in rapid succession and perform in repertory throughout the summer together with a host of satellite events. The stage will open June 2 and continue through mid-October. This season’s repertoire includes performances of The Crucible, Coriolanus, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Chalk Garden and Haiti.


To start the season off, Theatricum will begin with an allegory for today’s turbulent times. Shakespeare’s crushing tragedy is one of his more openly political plays. It is a cautionary tale of revenge. Rome, a city where the one-percenters rule, is led by a populist general who has nothing but contempt for the 99 percent. Unable to reconcile his disdain for the common people with his love of country, Coriolanus finds himself driven into the embrace of his sworn enemy. Coriolanus is a hero lacking in political prowess and destroyed by his pride and inability to compromise. The play is set in Rome’s transition from Monarchy to Republic.

The Crucible

McCarthysim, witch hunts, Hollywood blacklists and fake news all come into play in the upcoming Theatricum Botanicum performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

The play is a parable of mass hysteria that draws a chilling parallel between the Salem witch hunts of 1692 and McCarthyism, which gripped America in the 1950s. Theatricum artistic director Ellen Geer, Will’s daughter, is at the helm, with family members Thad Geer, Willow Geer and Melora Marshall featured in the cast.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

What a classic tale from Shakespeare and our annual audience favorite. The magic of Theatricum’s natural outdoor setting will stand in for the Bard’s enchanted forest, as director Willow Geer conjures up a world of wonder, magic and romance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Chalk Garden

Long-time Theatricum company member Susan Angelo directs the Geer family revival of Enid Bagnold’s classic The Chalk Garden. This timeless classic that has seen broadway and performed on many stages, even across the pond in London, is brought to our stage here at Theatricum with a dyed in the wool British dowager known as Mrs. St. Maugham, a selfish and eccentric woman who spends her days gardening but is unable to make anything grow. Her teenage daughter, Laurel, is a precocious liar. When enigmatic Miss Madrigal is hired as household companion and manager, the two finally meet their match.


The theater will present a revival of Haiti, a historical melodrama about the 1802 overthrow of the colonial Haitian government written by William DuBois for the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). It was subtitled A drama of the black Napoleon. The play was presented in 1938 by the FTP’s Negro Theatre Unit in a radical and controversial production that saw white and black actors performing together onstage at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. The FTP was part of the Works Progress Administration Federal Theater Project (FTP), and part of the New Deal economic recovery program. Negro Units, also called the Negro Theatre Project, were set up in 23 cities across the US. It only survived from 1935 – 1939 but provided employment and apprenticeships to hundreds of black actors, directors, theater technicians and playwrights. This project was a huge leg up for black talent during the Depression Era. The Lafayette Theater in Harlem was the best known of the FTP program theaters. Two white directors, John Houseman and Orson Welles, headed it in 1935. Three black directors, Edward Perry, Carlton Moss, and H. F. V. Edward, replaced them in 1936.

Other Theater Programming:

In addition to theater, Theatricum will present other special events on its mainstage.

• Wednesday, July 4 from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.: Theatricum’s fourth annual Family Barn Dance and Bar-B-Que;

• Saturday, Oct. 6 at 2 p.m.: The Woody Guthrie Story, the Geer family’s annual tribute to the songwriter, folklorist and labor leader who was also a longtime Theatricum friend.

• Sunday, Oct. 7 at 4 p.m.: Inara George and Friends, the acclaimed singer/songwriter’s annual concert that benefits the theater’s artistic and educational programming.


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