Entertainment » Theatre

Cymbeline

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Aug 29, 2016
Cymbeline

This summer's Shakespeare on the Common has come and gone, and it was great fun. But that doesn't mean the party... or the "Bard-ty"... is over. Brown Box Theatre Project has free outdoors Shakespeare to offer, too, as they have for the last several years. This summer's offering is "Cymbeline," a story of exile, jealousy, ambition, and near-disaster averted only through twists of fate and a last-minute airing of woes, secrets, and explanations... in short, it's a family drama, though one that entails cross-dressing, long-lost royal sons, and, perhaps, the wickedest stepmothers ever to tread the boards.

Cymbeline (Kai Tshikosi) is the King of the Britons. The time is... well, that's unclear, but the Roman Empire is still a force to be reckoned with, and so are social and class structures that dictate that a princess such as Cymbeline's daughter Imogen (Austyn Davis) oughtn't to run off and marry a sweetheart of lowborn status, even if it is a lad like Posthumous (Felix Teisch), whom the king has raised almost as his own son.

It's a match made in Purgatory -- at least, once Cymbeline finds out about it and dispatches Posthumous to exile. His wrath stems, in part, from having lost his two sons years before. As infants, they were stolen by another man sent into exile, Belarius (Cameron Scott). Imogen is Cymbeline's last remaining child, and he looks to her -- and a proper marriage to a nobleman -- to see his line continue on the throne. Little does he know, however, that his wife, the Queen (Isa Braun), has taken up poisoning as a hobby, with an eye to installing her own son -- Cymbeline's stepson, the cloddish Cloten (James Wechsler) -- as royal successor.

If the not-quite-sibling-like romantic connection between Posthumous and Imogen isn't sketchy enough, try this on for size: Cloten has long been smitten with his step-sister and intends to marry her. With Posthumous having been sent away, he sees his chance -- but Imogen has no interest in him. She has no interest in anyone but Posthumus, and Posthumus knows it. Indeed, he brags about it after having traveled to Italy and fallen in with a fellow named Iachimo (Chris Olmsted), a rake and con artist who, in a fit of envy for the ring Imogen gave Posthumus, proposes a wager: If Iachimo can seduce Imogen, then Posthumus will have to surrender the ring. If not, then he will pay Posthumus a whole lot of money, plus face off with him with swords for having so roguishly impugned Imogen's virtues.

Creepily, Posthumus agrees to this absurd bet, telling Iachimo that if the arrogant young Italian can prove that he has "tasted" Imogen "in bed," then not only will he hand over the ring, but he'll also pledge to be the guy's BFF. (It never seems to occur to Postumus that if Iachimo is a knave and a coxcomb for daring to suggest his wife is a vixen, then Posthumus himself is at least as toxic for laying a wager on the question. It occurs to us, though, and we in the audience might be forgiven for thinking, "WTF?!")

Think this is enough of a setup to keep things rattling along? Think again! More madness ensues, with Iachimo rigging up falsified evidence to convince Posthumus of Imogen's supposed infidelity, and the subsequently-enraged Posthumus going so far as to write a letter to one of Imogen's servants, Pisano (Will Madden), instructing him to murder the princess. As if! Instead, the devoted Pisanio helps Imogen disguise herself as a man and flee to the mountains, where she's discovered and taken in by -- ta-da! -- Belarus and his two strapping sons, Guiderius (Ben Heath) and Arviragus (Marc Pierre). The boys instantly take a liking to the new member of their family, hailing "him" as their "brother." This being Shakespeare (who just loves these sorts of plot contrivances), they are closer to the truth than they realize.

Now is when the story really starts boiling, with war, decapitation, mistaken identities, deathbed confessions, and all sorts of other dramatic elements swirling into a virtual Sharknado... rather, Shakesnado... of intrigue, action, and bloodletting. But this brisk production moves at such a gallop, even the intricate build-up seems climactic, while the excellent cast sells the material so well that the ever-more elaborate complications of the plot seem less egregious than they might. In short, this is a gripping presentation, kept light and swift in text and delivery as well as in design. The set is a single, fairly elaborate, free-standing structure dominated by a piece of furniture that transforms, variously, into a throne, a tabletop, and a bed.

But the economy of the production takes not a whit away from its dynamism. "Cymbeline" has been presented in the past as either a comedy or a drama; here, it's played straight, though with well-judged flourishes (in particular, a battle between the Britons and Romans that's staged in a way that comes right to the brink of parody, but which succeeds in signaling that an epic clash has occurred).

Even in a cast this good, there are a few standouts. Austyn Davis embodies Imogen to such a T that we understand instantly why Posthumus has such faith in her. We also accept their elopement without a qualm; Imogen is a young woman of immense capability and confidence, and she's certainly able to choose her own mate. As Iachimo, Chris Olmsted is suitably arrogant and even, when it's called for, creepy; but later on, when Iachimo is wracked by guilt and gripped by a spasm of confession, Olmsted plays him just as convincingly. Overall, this play -- which has not always been treated kindly by the critics -- is elevated by Brown Box to a different kind of midsummer night's dream, one that's best experienced right out there in the midsummer night.

This production is set to tour around the Boston area before heading out of state. For a full schedule, go to http://www.brownboxtheatre.org/schedule.html

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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