Running shows in rotating repertory, with a single cast performing alternating scripts on the same stage, can be a win-win proposition for producers and patrons alike. Theaters only have to pay to build a single set; actors enjoy the challenge of learning multiple roles simultaneously; and audiences often get the opportunity to see a lesser-known work, subsidized by the ticket sales of a more marketable sibling.
That theory is put into practice by Orlando Shakespeare Theater with their delightful new production of Cymbeline, which rotates with Romeo and Juliet (reviewed here last week by Al Krulick) through mid-March.
If that title sent you scrambling for your bookshelf to consult Riverside, rest assured you’re not alone. As director Jim Helsinger explained in an informative opening night pre-show, this is the first time Orlando Shakes has mounted this “unfairly maligned” play, written during the last third of the Bard’s career. It’s also one of the only plays of Bill S.’s that I’d never seen or read before. Fear not; despite featuring more taxation politics and royal disguises than The Phantom Menace, the plot is among Shakespeare’s more easily understood.
King Cymbeline (Wynn Harmon) is ruler of Britain in the era of Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. The Queen (Anne Hering), Cymbeline’s wicked second wife, wants her buffoonish son Cloten (Brandon Roberts) wedded to the King’s daughter Imogen (Carey Urban), but she’s eloped with lowly Posthumus (David Hardie). Posthumus is banished to Rome, where he makes a frat-boy bet over Imogen’s faithfulness with womanizer Iachimo (Geoffrey Kent). Her purity defamed, Imogen flees into the forest with servant Pisanio (Michael Raver), where she bumps into her long-lost brothers (Bradford Frost, Michael Shenefelt). Meanwhile, Caius Lucius leads Roman legions into Britain to collect unpaid back taxes, leading to a big battle that brings the leads back together.
Those who consider standard Shakespeare stultifying will find Orlando Shakes’ Cymbeline refreshingly unstuffy. The show’s tone, which whipsaws from comedy to tragedy mid-monologue, is a successful blend of Disney fairy tale (complete with poison-brewing wicked stepmom) and potboiler soap opera, with a dash of Jersey Shoreprurience. Helsinger’s breathless blocking never leaves a moment to get bored, between the songs and the swordfights spiritedly staged by Geoffrey Kent. Even the credibility-straining, coincidence-filled coda, which George Bernard Shaw famously hated enough to rewrite, is presented here like the ending to an absurdist Elizabethan episode of Scooby-Doo.
The Shakes cast is up to the challenge of this oddity, toeing the line of self-parody without tumbling completely over. As Imogen, the feisty Urban has more in common with Princess Leia than the average fairy-tale princess; though prone to weeping, she’s got more balls than Belle. Roberts is priceless as the stammering, stumbling Cloten (vile but adorably pathetic), and Hardie’s Posthumus has a goofy gallantry that recalls William Shatner. Special note must be made of Hering, whose Queen combines Maleficent’s iciness with Ursula’s dramatic flair, and of Johnny Lee Davenport, authoritative in several roles, including a toga-clad Jupiter, the show’s literal deus ex machina.
While it may not have the emotional weight of his more famous works, Cymbeline makes a strong argument for mentally refiling Shakespeare from “just good for you” to “just good fun.”
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