Summer theater in the Philadelphia area is typically dominated by William Shakespeare’s works, and this season, plays by the Bard have been featured on stages from Quakertown to Wilmington, Del. Particularly welcome have been the frequent free productions, including Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s fascinating staging of Cymbeline.
Under the direction of one of the city’s best freelance directors, David O’Connor, who first gained notoriety for his masterful staging of Master Harold ... and the Boys at Lantern Theater Company, Cymbeline is performed by the members of PST’s Classical Acting Academy. Now in its fourth year, the Academy is an eight-week program that immerses the students in classical acting techniques, taught by some of the area’s top professional theater artists, then is capped off with a staging of a Shakespeare play, productions that have been surprisingly well performed. Cymbeline, often considered one of Shakespeare’s most challenging offerings, is no exception.
The play’s complicated story begins with a rather unseemly wager between Posthumus, portrayed by the steady Brooks Russell, and the Roman Iachimo, given voice by the versatile Kevin Rodden. Posthumus has been banished from Britain for marrying Imogen (the excellent Marisa Lerman) against the wishes of her father King Cymbeline (an able Sam Sherburne) and his deceitful queen (played with a delicious unscrupulousness by Hannah Van Scivers), who planned to solidify her position by wedding Imogen to her pompous son, Cloten (Isaiah Ellis, oozing with charm). Posthumus brags to Iachimo that his wife is “more fair, virtuous, wise, chaste, constant-qualified and less attemptable” than any other woman. The slippery Iachimo bets Posthumus a hefty $10,000 ducats that he can bed Imogen. As if his wife was a piece of property, Posthumus agrees to the wager, and, to make matters worse, he bets with a diamond ring given to him by Imogen as a symbol of her devotion. Although Iachimo is ultimately rejected by Imogen, he steals a bracelet from the young bride and convinces Posthumus that his wife has been unfaithful. Enraged, Posthumus orders his servant to kill her, a decision that forces the princess to flee the castle disguised as a man.
What follows is a wild tale of mistaken identity, betrayed loyalties and other surprises, but Posthumus’ behavior is its most disturbing element. He declares his love for Imogen, but he orders her death with surprising quickness. Instead of the heroic male at the center of most romances, in Cymbeline, it is the courageous Imogen who is smart, strong and merciful.
Even before Cymbeline begins, O’Conner’s production works to draw the audience into the play’s world by having the actors (as themselves) mingle with the theater-goers. When it begins, the houselights remain on, and while this tactic to erase the natural divide between audience and actor is strategically sound, it is also a bit distracting. Fortunately, after a few minutes, the houselights are dimmed, and, with that connection securely established, Cymbeline begins in earnest.
The spare staging —the set’s only decoration is a large trunk that figures prominently in a key scene and from which the actors extract various props and figures—puts the focus squarely on the actors, and while a few occasionally struggle with the demands of portraying multiple characters, these lapses are rare, and for the most part, the performances are clear and convincing. The bare-bones production is also noteworthy for Patrick Lamborn’s original music, which effectively underscores the onstage action. In an interesting twist, the soundscape is provided by the actors, nearly all of whom double as musicians.
One of Shakespeare’s final plays, Cymbeline is an example of Shakespeare at his most confident. Like his late-career masterpiece The Tempest, in Cymbeline, Shakespeare is unwilling to be bound by the traditions inherent in clearly defined genres. Instead, he combines elements found not only in comedy and tragedy, but also devices from history and problem plays, romances, fairy tales and even parody, which is evident in the play’s preposterously far-fetched conclusion. It’s a reminder that for all his genius, Shakespeare wasn’t above commercial exploits. Like any working playwright, he wrote plays to make money—and Cymbeline is clearly intended to thrill a mass audience. Rich with passion, gore, duplicity, revenge and even a grandly-staged battle sequence in which Britain’s ragtag forces attempt to thwart an invading Roman army, Cymbeline is the 17th century equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster.
This isn’t to infer that Cymbeline is shallow or frivolous. PST’s involving production is fun to watch, but it also provides food for thought, particularly in its condemnation of the objectification of women, its poignant commentary on the emptiness of revenge—and the joy that comes from forgiveness.
Through Aug. 19. Free. Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom St. Advance tickets available only to Bard Card members. For the general public, tickets available at the door three hours prior to performance. phillyshakespeare.org