I pass'd, methought, the melancholy flood,
With that grim ferryman which poets write of,
Unto the kingdom of perpetual night.
Unto the kingdom of perpetual night.
On a drive along pacific coast highway you can eventually take a turn away from the Pacific, leave the iconic California coast line of LA county behind, the glitter of Malibu, and begin a Narnia-Wardrobe-like transition into Topanga Canyon. The six mile road twists and turns with rocky cliff sides towering above: sagebrush-accented and prehistoric looking. There's a deli and one or two cafes, but not much else besides pure nature until you see an unobtrusive sign indicating you've arrived at the Will Gear Theatricum Botanicum.
Actor Will Gear opened the Theatricum Botanicum on his property for fellow black listed actors who were victims of McCarthyism. Since he could not get work in Hollywood, he and his family survived on his Topanga Canyon property by selling herbs, vegetables, and theatre. When the blacklisting ended, he converted the Theatricum Botanicum into a non-profit organization that offered free workshops, and since his death educational programs along with traditional productions.
This is not your typical theatre experience. Not the conventional concert hall or play house, with assigned seating or air conditioning. Attending a production here is like entering a time machine, going back to how plays were traditionally preformed: in the open air. But I am getting ahead of myself. When coming to see a play at the Theatricum Botanicum, it will not be a complete experience if you arrive just in time to sit down for the performance. Arrive early and have a picnic on the grounds before hand. There are picnic tables provided and the Hamlet Hut offers some concessions as well. Camping trip meets night at the theatre is an unexpectedly perfect marriage.
The open-air element, to me, was the best part. Feeling the breeze, hearing frogs and crickets mixing melodies, and the sight of periodic leaves falling form the trees above somehow made the play feel more real like it was possible that we simply went on a hike on some walking paths in the woods and stumbled across an engaging interaction with a troop of people in uncommon costume. Best of all, since its rather chilling in Topanga Canyon in the evenings, everyone comes equipped with blankets. So now not only is it camping trip meets night at the theatre, but you now throw in the feeling of watching a movie from the comfort of your home, bundled up in your favorite throw with a warm cup of hot coco in your mittened hand.
Our maiden voyage at the Theatricum Botanicum was for Shakespeare's Richard III. I'd, shamefully, never read the play but was instantly absorbed. The cast was captivating from the first uttered line and had me holding my breath in anticipation at some points and laughing out loud [too loud?] at others. The costumes were over-the-top in ideal Shakespearean fashion making me long for a return to an era where all were required to wear cloaks and capes. Most of all, however, is the undeniable passion the actors of this production have for theatre. I mean, good acting is good acting, but you can tell when an actor or actress truly has a passion for it, sees it as art, as part of breathing for them, rather than just their means to a paycheck. All the actors of this production were clearing of the former type, creatively committed to their characters, and exhibiting their devotion for their chosen art.
I can't believe that I did not know this place existed. For all the money people are willing to shell out for performances of various kinds, many are missing out on a truly unique experience [and at a much more reasonable price at might add] at the Theatricum Botanicum. A great way to spend an evening: picnic dinner, bundled in blankets, and transported into fiction as if a participant in its making. The end of the performance will leaving you wishing you could stay the night, hoping that this theatre-Narnia might just keep you forever.