As summer settles into the shaded hillsides of Topanga Canyon, a garden of theatrical delights begins to bloom.
Warm days herald the start of Theatri cum Botanicum's summer repertory, opening Sunday with Shakespeare's "Two Gentlemen of Verona," eventually rotating with Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," which opens July 3, and Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," opening Aug. 7.
Of course the theater has been busy all year, particularly during May's School Days program. This year, it included a short version of last year's "Hamlet" and a condensation of this year's "Two Gentlemen." In addition to introducing a young audience to the classics, the May schedule acts as a warm-up for the rigors of the summer repertory.
The choice of plays, this year as previously, has been carefully worked out according to their insights into today's world. Artistic director Ellen Geer explains that the choices are not arbitrary.
"I always select plays by what I feel is going on in society," Geer says. "At times, it's just an emotional thing that I feel. A yearning or something. It's personal. That's my job as artistic director. That's what we do when we act. We bring ourselves to a play or a part. Somebody else would select something totally different. I think audiences will relate to these plays, even more now than they would have two years ago."
The subject of Shakespeare's comedy "Two Gentlemen of Verona" is betrayal, friendship and relationship. Geer says: "We need to think about all those things now."
"A Streetcar Named Desire" has been in Geer's plans for about six years, since actor Richard Tyson first auditioned at the theater. Williams' estate finally gave the performance rights to Geer, who will play Blanche opposite Tyson's Stanley. Tyson, who played the corrupt father in the movie "Kindergarten Cop," will play the title role in the upcoming television miniseries "Genghis Khan."
The third play, "Caucasian Chalk Circle," which Geer refers to as one of the great anti-war plays, is about justice and how it changes, what happens when a new government comes in.
Geer, whose actor father Will Geer founded the theater, remembers doing plays in the canyon venue when she was a child in the 1950s. With a laugh, she recalls learning to bump and grind at age 10 for a production of Williams' "This Property Is Condemned."
Even by 1973, when the theater became a nonprofit corporation called the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, it was operated principally as a workshop; when a play was ready, a sign would be put out up on the road. Concerts at the theater have been given by Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and Della Reese, among others.
Both community reaction to the group's work and its outreach programs have continued to build its popularity. And since 1983, the company has been fully professional, operating under an Equity contract.
But it's a family organization in more ways than just by virtue of being operated by the Geers. Actors who have worked there tend to come back. They feel the aura of an extended family that fills the small canyon where the theater sits.
Melora Marshall, a member of the Geer family and a familiar face to Theatricum audiences, is playing Julia in "Two Gentlemen," Stella in "Streetcar" and Grusha in "Chalk Circle."
Marshall explains: "Young actors feel very much a part of the process when they come in. They know what's expected of them and they feel the love."
Actor Tom Allard, who appears as Mitch in "Streetcar" and has been with the theater for nine years, agrees. "It's a theater of great heart," Allard says. "Our audiences are very individual and unique, because people have to make a specific journey to come here to take what this company has to offer. For me, it's been very fulfilling. And Ellen gives us an opportunity to work in ways other theaters may not."
Now in his fourth season with Theatricum, David Anthony Smith is Valentine in "Two Gentlemen." Geer gave him a rewarding opportunity this past season. "She gave me a chance to play Hamlet," he says, "one of the greatest roles ever written." He reprised his Dane during May's School Days.
With all the opportunities for actors in the group, Smith says, "you can't be a prima donna out here."
And Geer adds that there is only one prima donna in the canyon: "It's one of the hardest places to work, but one of the most rewarding places. We've had set and costume designers come here and suddenly they're at war with the star. It's not a human being. The star is nature."
WHERE AND WHEN
* What: "Two Gentlemen of Verona," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "The Caucasian Chalk Circle."
* Location: Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga.
* Hours: "Two Gentlemen," 3:30 p.m. Sundays, June 13 to Aug. 1; 3:30 p.m. Saturdays, Aug. 7 to Sept. 11. "Streetcar," 8 p.m. Saturdays, July 3 to 31; 7:30 p.m. Sundays, July 4 to Aug. 29. "Chalk Circle," 8 p.m. Saturdays, Aug. 7 to Sept. 11; 3:30 p.m. Sundays, Aug. 8 to Sept. 12.
* Price: $12, $8.50 senior citizens or students, $4 children 6 to 12.
* Call: (310) 455-3723.