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THEATER | THEATER NOTES

Botanicum Ousts Ties That Bind

June 08, 1997|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

The name of the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum suggests that the late founder Will Geer's priorities were almost as much botanical as theatrical.

For example, when the seating for the outdoor theater in Topanga was constructed, Geer wanted to make sure there would be room for plants to grow up between the seats, said his daughter Ellen Geer, now the artistic director of the place. And so the seating consisted of old railroad ties sprawling haphazardly across a lopsided hillside.

As a result, the Theatricum Botanicum became known for the most uncomfortable seating in Southland theater. "It was an earthy experience, but it was impractical," Ellen Geer said.

Now the railroad ties are gone. When the Theatricum Botanicum opens its annual season today with "As You Like It," as many as 175 members of the audience will be seated on redwood benches--with backs--in rows that are more or less level from left to right. Behind the benches is cheaper seating on a cement-covered terrace, higher up the hill.

The seating isn't all that has changed. The creek that runs under the stage has been harnessed into a flood-control channel, and the path leading to the theater entrance is now a wheelchair-friendly sidewalk. Stone seats carved into the creek covering provide seating for theatergoers waiting for the doors to open.

A permanent stage structure near the entrance has been demolished, replaced by one on the opposite side of the stage--allowing "more forest to be visible from the audience," Geer said. And late last week, additional sound walls were scheduled to be erected near the entrance to block the noise from Topanga Canyon Boulevard, but on Monday Geer said that the sound had already improved because of the changes in the seating area. Overhead, two higher canopies have replaced what Geer described as the old, sagging canopy.

"It feels like a baby Greek bowl," Geer said of the ongoing renovations, which cost approximately $250,000. "It had a homey, hippie feeling, but now it's a real legitimate theater."

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RAGING WATERS: Meanwhile, Shakespeare Festival/LA--the L.A. area's other long-running home of professional, alfresco Shakespeare--is moving downtown this summer, away from the Veterans Administration gardens in West L.A., where it has presented its free L.A. productions for the past three years.

It was simply "an aesthetic decision," said artistic director Ben Donenberg. The company will stage "The Tempest," which is set on an island, at the Water Court--a set of fountains and pools on Bunker Hill. "We were excited about building an island and choreographing the water."

So the company will build its own island, 40 feet by 36 feet, and will use the facility's computerized water sculptures as part of the show. The main seating area will comprise 700 folding chairs, with room for 300 more on an upper level of bleachers.

The production will be at the Water Court July 9-20, then move to one of its customary second homes, South Coast Botanic Gardens in Palos Verdes, July 24-27. There, a pool and fountains aren't part of the package, so the audience will have to imagine the watery elements.

The company won't return to another supplementary venue, Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge, because the Shakespeare Festival's truck is too heavy for the shallow roots of some of the plants in the garden, Donenberg said.

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GUILD!: The recent birth of the Reprise! series of semi-staged musicals got a lot of attention, but another group, the Musical Theatre Guild, has been doing a more modest version of the same thing since December. Unlike Reprise!, the Guild does only one performance of each show, on Monday nights at the Pasadena Playhouse.

The Guild's unofficial season culminates Monday with a performance of the obscure Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt musical "Colette Collage," after earlier performances of a new "Christmas Carol" musical, "The Apple Tree" and "110 in the Shade."

The Guild can perform only on Mondays because of Pasadena Playhouse productions during the rest of the week, Guild spokesman Eric Andrist said. But at least the playhouse doesn't charge rent.

The Guild's artistic decisions are made by a vote of its membership, which includes 22 musical theater veterans, including two "Ragtime" stars: John Rubinstein and Marcia Mitzman Gaven. There is no artistic director. Productions use only one or two musicians. The group's Actors' Equity contract allows only limited rehearsal time.

Andrist said his group is less commercial than Reprise! because it doesn't promote its shows with star names. However, the Guild does eventually hope to stage full productions, he said.

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