The clever production of Cymbeline from the Strawdog Theatre Company at the Factory Theatre has much to recommend it. It is a story of large scope presented in a theatre that seats only 79, but the challenges the production poses are met with not only ability, but genuine flair. Using minimal props and a largely blank black box, the setting ably moves from Royal court to mountain cave to battlefield without a hitch. Actors play multiple roles and the clever color-coded costuming always lets you know where you are and who you’re with. The production is very, very well thought out.
And it needs to be, because Cymbeline has a great deal going on in the story. If you don’t communicate all the plot twists in a way that the audience can easily follow, you’re going to flounder because they will be lost. This production does everything it can with staging, costuming, and blocking to help the audience know what is going on.
Which is why some of the rest of it is so disappointing.
I have never understood the issues people have with Shakespeare’s language – yet, plainly, people have them. And casting people who are clearly struggling with the meaning of the words they are saying – or if not meaning – context – is never a good idea. If the actor isn’t clear on what they need to communicate in their speeches, you end up with fast-moving word salad with the emphasis on all the wrong things.
And this production suffers from that in several key roles. And then, you have plenty of people who not only understand absolutely what they are communicating but do it with immense flair and a real feel for who they are supposed to be. And then you have some that are just transcendent and go above and beyond. This production runs this gamut. Word salad to sublime interpretation. The question you have to ask yourself is how much of the former can you tolerate to get to the latter.
Sadly, it leads with weakness. The main plot is about the great love between Posthumus Leonatus, a poor but noble man of King Cymbeline’s court and the King’s only child, Imogen. They have married in secret and Imogen has given Posthumus a diamond ring and he has given her a bracelet symbolizing their unconsummated union. The King, who on behest of his new wife has agreed that Imogen should marry her son, Cloten, exiles Posthumus. Cymbeline banishes Posthumus who leaves for Rome.
Now while playing young lovers in nearly any Shakespeare play is a thankless task, there is word-salad all over these critical performances by Sam Hubbard and Daniella Pereria, though they both look the part. The emotions are overwrought, but that’s an ok interpretation of desperate young lovers, but the saying lots of words really fast without emphasizing the correct ones makes it hard for the audience in a number of places. Long speeches are likely to make your eyes glaze over, but shorter ones are fine. Servant Pisanio is as guilty here as anybody, which is a shame because Pisanio moves the plot in critical ways. Michaela Petro performance comes off one-note, which is angry, and not just when her master’s honor is impugned or her mistress is in danger. So it starts off rocky.
Cymbeline, Brandon Saunders, and the Queen, Sarah Goeden, are steady enough, though she gets a bit bogged down on her longer speeches and you’re not really sure where she’s going. The Queen is subtle and evil while trying to be charming, so she has a lot to do, but sometimes it’s just a bit muddled. The Queen gives the faithful servant Pisanio a vial of what she believes is poison, telling Pisanio that it’s a great elixir to cure all ills. Michael Reyes as Doctor Corneilius is a welcome, totally charming force here that gets the critical poison plot over to everyone. The vial the Queen has given Pisanio is bogus and will just knock someone out for a few hours. I’d watch Reyes do Shakespeare all day long.
Once Posthumus gets to Rome, things are immediately better for the arrival of Jose Nateras as Iachimo. Playing the charming skeptic, he challenges Posthumus to a test of his lady’s vaunted virtue. Posthumus bets the diamond ring she had given him vs gold that she is virtuous. Plus they’ll duel. Iachimo goes to England with a Roman delegation and quickly finds Imogen is as virtuous as advertised. So, he sneaks into her bedchamber when she’s sleeping takes note of it, steals her bracelet (a present from Posthumus) and discovers a mole on her breast to prove her infidelity. He returns to Rome and convinces Posthumous of her infidelity. All of this is much better. Hubbard and Nateras do better playing off of each other than Hubbard and Periera do.
Meanwhile, the Queen’s son, Cloten, pursues Imogen at his mother’s behest. She wants him to marry Imogen and has gotten the King to agree, so her bloodline will also be on the throne of Britain. And here we see the true genius thing in this play. Gage Wallace’s portrayal of Cloten as stupid, whimsical, half-mad and cowardly is one of those revelations of a performance on par with Alan Rickman’s turn in the awful Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. It’s almost like he’s in his own play and that play is one of the best plays you’ve ever been to. If everyone was putting in a performance like this, it would be an exceptional night of theatre. I can’t say enough about how amazing this is in a part that could be a one-dimensional nothing with another actor in it.
Posthumus sends two letters to Britain, one to his servant Pisanio telling her to lure Imogen to Milford Haven in Wales and then murder her. The second is a love letter to Imogen telling her to meet him at Milford Haven, so she’ll go with Pisanio. Pisanio knows Imogen to be guiltless and reveals the plot. Pisanio disguises Imogen as a boy and tells her to go to Milford Haven and get a job. As a boy she calls herself “Fidele”, or faithful.
Meanwhile at court, Cymbeline refuses to pay his tribute to the Roman ambassador Caius Lucius, the solid Dwight Sora, and Lucius warns Cymbeline that if he doesn’t pay up Rome will invade.
Cloten learns that Imogen has gone to Milford Haven to meet Posthumus and dresses himself in Posthumus’ clothes and sets out to rape, abduct and marry Imogen. And while he’s at it, he’ll kill Posthumous, too.
Imogen has reached Wales but is starving. She happens upon a cave. It is the home of Belarius, now a hunter, but formerly a respected man of Cymbeline’s court. Long ago, he was betrayed and estranged from the King, so he abducted Imogen’s two brothers and raised him as his own sons, calling them Polydore and Cadwal. He has raised them to be brave and honorable, if poor hunters. Again, it’s like this is in a different play, because Martel Manning as Belarius, and Dan Cobbler Guiderius/Polydore and Terry Bell as Arviragus/Cadwal are all totally amazing in everything they do. Shakespeare seems to come as naturally to them as breathing.
They discover the strange boy, “Fidele,” but immediately feel connected to him and invite him to stay as he’s not feeling well. While out hunting, Polydore comes across Cloten, who insults him, and the two duel and Polydore kills Cloten and beheads him. Imogen, back at the cave has still been feeling ill, so she takes the contents of the vial given her by Pisanio and falls down seemingly dead.
The Hunters are heartbroken when they find her and prepare to bury her along with Cloten, whose body must be hidden in fear of the King’s wrath. At this point, the cast sings “Fear No More the Heat of the Sun” quite nicely. As the men go off to dig graves, Imogen awakens and finding Cloten’s headless body dressed in Posthumus’ clothes, she thinks it’s her “husband” dead. Pereira is much stronger all throughout the second half of the play and does this nicely.
Lucius’ Roman soldiers have arrived to invade and Lucius discovers “Fidele”, who pretends to be a loyal servant grieving for his killed master; Lucius, moved by this faithfulness, enlists “Fidele” as a servant.
Posthumus, believing Imogen to be dead at his order has enlisted in the Roman army, hoping to get killed on British soil. Instead, Belarius, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Posthumus all help turn the die and save Cymbeline from the Romans; the king doesn’t recognize any of them, but commends them for capturing the Roman commanders, Lucius and Iachimo.
Posthumus and “Fidele/Imogen”, are imprisoned alongside the Romans, all of whom await execution.
Cornelius arrives and says that Queen has died suddenly, confessing on her deathbed that she hated everyone and was trying to steal the throne. Cymbeline prepares to execute the Roman prisoners.
“Fidele” sees Posthumus’ ring on Iachimo’s finger, and fearing death Iachimo confesses the bet, how he could not seduce Imogen, and tricked Posthumus. Posthumus admits remorse at believing him and wanting Imogen dead. Imogen reveals her true identity with Pisanio’s help, throwing off the “Fidele” disguise.
As this unfolds Belarius reveals his own and his “sons” true identities, making them heirs to the king and allowing Imogen and Posthumus to be married. Cymbeline is so happy, he pardons all the Roman prisoners and pays tribute so that everyone can be friends.
The Second half of this redeems the rocky first half, but I think it is likely only for true Shakespeare lovers. A few people left at intermission, and it was too bad they did as it just got better and better as it went along. Go to see some of the excellent performances and let the rest slide, I think.
Cymbeline plays through February 25th. Tickets available from Strawdog Theatre Company.
Photos by All Tom McGrath/TCMcGPhotography