Trouble in Mind play at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum (Photo - Liam Flanders).

      Trouble in Mind play at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum (Photo – Liam Flanders).

      Summer is almost over, but the calendar is still full through October 1st at the beautiful, rustic Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon. It is well worth the trip through the Valley to the shaded amphitheater where the atmosphere hasn’t changed since the ’70’s. I recently attended performances of the following productions at this hillside venue which seats only about 300, which guarantees you have an intimate theater experience even if you are in the “cheap seats”.

      By Carol Edger Germain

      – Trouble in Mind

      Trouble-in-Mind theater bill (Photo - httptheatricum.com).Unintentionally timely in light of recent events, pioneering African American playwright Alice Childress’ 1955 play-within-a-play about about a primarily African American cast performing an anti-lynching play written by a white writer and directed by a white director, has plenty of comedic moments countered with heart-wrenching drama that sucks the smile right off your face.

      A talented cast brings the show to life and the audience’s hearts and emotions to the surface. The play opens with the cast gathering to read, review and critique their parts in the play based on their personal views, experiences, and world view. There is camaraderie as well as conflict as the cast struggles with meeting on common ground as to how the play should progress and end. The high strung self-righteous director Manners (played by Mark Lewis) is pleased with himself for giving the African American actors a chance to act in the anti-racism play, but his lack of self awareness prevents him from seeing the condescension in his words and attitude as he interprets the play. Henry, the elderly stage doorman (Rodrick Jean-Charles) brings the stage to life as the audience is settling into their seats, quite the character with lots of stories. Earnestine Phillips is commanding and powerful as Wiletta, the star of the play, and her discontent with director’s vision and the writer’s words simmers until it explodes, pulling everyone along with her as she protests the scenes that do not ring true for her.

      As is usually expected with Theatricum productions, the entire cast is up to the task. John (Max Lawrence) is a young actor playing his first show on Broadway, and gets schooled a few times by Wiletta on how to deal with a white director. Sheldon (Gerald C. Rivers), a veteran actor, “goes with the flow” and remains in the middle of the road on all issues. The charming Millie is played by sparkling, enthusiastic Constance Jewell Lopez. Judy Durkin is perfect as the perky young white girl in the play, fresh out of Yale, trying to focus on her job while dealing with the annoying personal attention and manipulation of the director. Manners is equally obnoxious to everyone around him, including his stage manager, Eddie (Frank Weidner), and the typical gun-toting Southern racist type actor Bill O’Wray (Christopher W. Jones).

      Yes, I think we’ve all been experiencing strong emotions with everything going on in the country, and you may want to escape those issues, but trust me, although this production deals with issues that aren’t much improved in 60 years, the writing, acting, and thought-provoking story line are well worth the indulgence.

      Trouble in Mind
      • Written by Alice Childress.
      • Directed by Ellen Geer.
      • Through Sept. 30:
      Sunday, Sept. 3 at 3:30 p.m.
      Saturday, Sept. 9 at 7:30 p.m.
      Saturday, Sept. 16 at 3:30 p.m.
      Sunday, Sept. 24 at 3:30 p.m.
      Saturday, Sept. 30 at 3:30 p.m.
      (Discount tickets for some dates at goldstar.com).

      Ο Ο Ο

      – Animal Farm

      "Animal Farm" play at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum (Photo - Liam Flanders).

      “Animal Farm” play at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum (Photo – Liam Flanders).

      This is “Animal Farm” the Musical. Yes, George Orwell’s allegorical 1945 book, which many of us read and discussed in school, has been produced as a musical.

      Animal Farm theater bill (Photo - httptheatricum.com).This adaptation is by Peter Hall and includes music by Richard Peaslee and lyrics by Adrian Mitchell. The musicians switch off on piano, woodwinds, guitar, banjo, melodic and percussion. The lighthearted tunes add some whimsy, which is counter intuitive to the seriousness of the message of the play, but it works and freshens the story.

      Even with music and pig noses on humans, the stern warning against totalitarian rule and authoritarian regimes, as evidenced in the 1917 Russian Revolution and the Stalinist era, is front and center as we see the rules crumble and head pig Napoleon become more dictatorial. Minimal staging was required, as the animals could play off the hillside and forest (which is something I love about Theatricum Botanicum – they make maximum use of the natural setting, with actors entering from all parts of the natural surroundings). The manifestation of the physical characteristics of the animals was sometimes subtle but entertaining and fun to watch – the sheep were on crutches and appropriately sheepish, the hens (my favorite) were continually and realistically clucking and cawing, and the donkey was stubborn and plodding.

      A unique adaptation, but don’t let the whimsy and comedy mislead you, the dire message comes across.

      Animal Farm
      • Adapted by Peter Hall.
      • Lyrics by Adrian Mitchell.
      • Music by Richard Peaslee.
      • Directed by Ellen Geer.
      • Through Oct. 1st:
      Saturday, Sept. 2 at 7:30 p.m.
      Sunday, Sept. 10 at 7:30 p.m.
      Sunday, Sept. 17 at 3:30 p.m.
      Saturday,Sept. 23 at 7:30 p.m.
      Sunday, Oct. 1 at 7:30 p.m.
      (Discount tickets for some dates at goldstar.com).

      Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum
      1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, CA 90290

      • Buy tickets for both plays here.

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