Equality between the sexes isn’t the same thing as equivalency, and the gender-scrambled “Lear” at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum faces more than just grammatical challenges transposing its source into an aging Queen’s foolish attempt to offload royal responsibilities onto disloyal sons.
Given that this take on the original’s rigidly patriarchal universe is fundamentally bonkers, it’s impressive how well co-adapter/directors Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall succeed in illuminating subtext and broadening the scope of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy.
The obvious benefit is Geer’s title role performance, rivaling the best male interpreters in intensity and heartbreak. By turns regal, arrogant, pathetic and haunted, Geer charts the familiar waypoints of Lear’s descent — mistaking flattery for loyalty and deluding herself that stature remains with a hollow title. Her harrowing storm scene traversing the front and rear of the venue is a high point in the staging’s spectacular use of its outdoor canyon environs.
Unique to the gender reversal are the maternal anguish Geer brings to the Queen’s sense betrayal by her sons (Aaron Hendry, Christopher W. Jones), and their opposing need as males to break free of mother.
Leaving Gloucester’s sex unchanged while swapping his sons for daughters shrewdly turns their subplot into more than a parallel to the house of Lear — the Act IV exchange between Geer’s mad monarch and Alan Blumenfeld’s blinded Duke aches with the dynamics of a mother and father ruining their respective parenting failures.
Transgendering the villainous Edmund (Abby Craden) adds a feminist dimension to her rebellion against norms of legitimacy and power, and there’s heightened vulnerability in Willow Geer’s equivalent of wronged Edgar. Amid a testosterone-fueled court, Marshall’s female Fool perches even farther outside the social order.
Despite some uneven handling of meter, the production gives proper psychological heft to language essentials, notably the painful birth of an authentic self reflected in Geer’s shift from the undifferentiated royal “we” to humbled “I” — a pronoun whose use is rarely so thoroughly earned.
“Lear’s” matriarchal mapping isn’t perfect but one cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it being so proper.
“Lear,” Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Runs in repertory, check theater for schedule. Ends Sept. 28. $25-$37. (310) 455-3723 or www.theatricum.com. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.