There are hundreds of incarnations of the Arthurian legends that abound through-out literature, theater and film. These stories generally focus on Arthur, his round table at Camelot and the sting of betrayal that he feels when his wife Guinevere falls in love with one of his knights, Sir Lancelot. Theatricum Botanicum shifts this focus on the Arthurian legend in their presentation of the world premiere of “Merlin.”
Writer and director Ellen Geer focuses her Merlin on the Druid tradition spanning from his birth up to King Arthur and the peace brought to the land with his round table. Geer also pays homage to some of the folklore surrounding Merlin including the building of Stone Henge and his connections to the lost city of Atlantis. Unfortunately this all inclusive approach is the downfall of this production; it tries to include too much and span too vast a history so the story gets lost in the telling. Even with a running time of almost three hours, large gaps run rampant throughout the script. There are jumps of anywhere from several months to 16 years that pass in the course of a scene change with little to no accounting of what happened in between.
In one scene we see Princess Asis as a strong warrior out killing a boar for her people. She encounters a bumbling Merlin in the woods and looks down on him and threatens him against trying to steal the glory from her kill. However, when her father learns of Merlin’s heritage he decrees that Merlin and the Princess shall be wed. Skip forward to the next scene and our strong, warrior princess is now a mooney-eyed, very pregnant wife acting like a silly school girl with a group of women, while Merlin is off in the woods with a wolf acting crazy . . . or being prophetic . . . maybe both. The connection between the two scenes is hinted at, but the time is not taken to fully develop the story or the characters. This lack of character development is endemic throughout the script. Many scenes start with a new group of people, as indicated by their drastically different costumes, but those people aren’t identified until part way through the scene. In trying to tell so many facets of Merlin’s history, it becomes a production with an identity crisis as many of the scenes/storylines look and feel like they should belong to different play.
However, the biggest question is why a woman was cast in the role of Merlin? There were no apparent over-arching themes or discoveries that were elucidated and brought to light by having a woman in the role. There was also no attempt to change the gender of Merlin. The character was kept a man, referred to as man and even fathers a child. Had a male actor stepped into the role instead of an actress the message of the story would not have been altered.
With the exception of a beard that was added in some scenes, and wearing men’s clothes there was nothing else done to help indicate that actress Melora Marshall was a man. Instead, her diminutive frame and obviously feminine voice was a reminder at every turn that Merlin was being played by a woman. It was like having an elephant in the room and being told to pretend that it wasn’t there. On top of which Marshall’s skittish and soft-spoken Merlin was often lost in the crowd while in the midst of so many other strong characters like King Lot, Uther and even Arthur. Whether this was a product of a muddled script, direction or mis-casting was hard to tell, but the namesake of the play felt more like a background character instead of the star.
Despite the problematic script, the cast as a whole was impressive; well-rehearsed and committed to their characters. Emelie O’Hara as Nimue was charming, Aaron Hendry brought a great arrogance to Uther and Colin Simon’s Arthur had an engaging innocence about him that was appealing. The staging of the building of Stone Henge, as well as Uther’s death and ultimately the removing of Excalibur from the stone were visually beautifully. There are definitely aspects of this production that are well done, but ultimately they are not enough to overcome the hurdle of a confused script.
*Coverage provided for the Culver City News