By William Shakespeare. Directed by Anita Rochon. A Bard on the Beach production. On the Howard Family Stage on Sunday, July 13. Continues in rep until September 17
Moments in this production of Cymbeline made me so happy that I wanted to cheer, but that would have interrupted the story, so I kept my mouth shut.
Director Anita Rochon’s take on the play is all about storytelling, and her first—enormous—success is that she makes the story crystal clear. Cymbeline has as much plot as an entire season of most TV series, and a lot of it is complicated and wildly fanciful. Imogen has married Posthumus, but her father, King Cymbeline, who disapproves of Posthumus’s lowborn status, banishes him. Cymbeline’s queen, Imogen’s wicked stepmother, wants her to marry Cloten, her vulgar braggart of a son.
The plot thickens when Iachimo, whom Posthumus meets in Italy, baits the new bridegroom into betting on Imogen’s chastity. When Iachimo claims to have won the bet, all hell breaks loose, and in this case, hell involves murderous plots, sleeping potions, a beheading, the reemergence of long-lost brothers—and, oh yes, war with Rome.
To keep all of this coherent, Rochon has trimmed the text. To keep it entertaining, she leans into the pleasures of narrative invention. Sometimes quadruply cast, a company of seven players takes on a total of 18 roles, often switching costumes before our eyes. Because it’s fun to watch actors transform, the play’s complexity, which could look ridiculous, becomes a delight.
Anton Lipovetsky, who plays Posthumus, Cloten, and Aviragus (one of Imogen’s long-lost brothers) is bloody well on fire. Just 24, this young actor is making choices with the audacity of a seasoned star. His Aviragus is as enthusiastic as a toddler, his Cloten as absurdly vulgar as a drunken soccer fan, and his Posthumus as innocent—in the early going—as an angel. Posthumus also makes that dickheaded bet, of course, and flies into a murderous rage when he thinks that Imogen has betrayed him. Lipovetsky finds the pain that allows us, eventually, to forgive the guy.
Rachel Cairns is also stellar as Imogen. One of the smartest young actors around, she finds every mote of the clear intelligence in the character. She knows exactly how to spin a laugh out of Imogen’s straightforwardness, as when the character says to Cloten, “I don’t like you.” And she’s so grounded that great waves of feeling simply well up and pass through her.
Bob Frazer also rocks it, especially as the dastardly Iachimo. The scene in which he slithers out of a trunk in Imogen’s bedroom and coils around the sleeping bride like a snake is one of the most arresting in the production.
The one performance that doesn’t work at all for me is Shawn Macdonald’s take on the Queen. Playing her as cartoon psycho, he inhabits a different world than anybody else. Lipovetsky’s Cloten is a kind of clown; Macdonald is wearing a much more rigid and much less interesting mask. Macdonald’s work as Belarius, a banished lord, is considerably stronger.
Rochon’s production is beautifully textured. Benjamin Elliott’s sound design—all of the actors sing and play instruments—contributes enormously to the ambiance and wit. Mara Gottler’s fencing-style costumes elegantly emphasize the play-fighting aspect of the script. And in Pam Johnson’s minimalist set, the arras in Imogen’s bedroom is a blast of luxury.
In its exploration of the illusory nature of experience, Cymbeline can be more philosophically interesting than it is here. But Shakespeare’s celebration of compassion, which is the heart of the script, comes through loud and clear. And Cymbeline is so rarely performed that watching it is like discovering a brand new play. Listening, you’re rewarded with jewels such as Posthumus’s plea to Imogen: “Hang there like a fruit, my soul/Till the tree die!”