Review: ‘Cymbeline’ at Baltimore Shakespeare Factory

You may never have heard of William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, King of Britain, as it is not often produced. More’s the pity. It’s much maligned as derivative, though the author merely borrows from himself, which I consider economy. Once represented (perhaps satirically?) as “tragedy,” it is full of traditional romance elements, awash in melodrama, liberally peppered with song and dance, and chockablock with tangled plotlines, assumed names, mistaken identities and people in the wrong clothing. If farce had been invented in Shakespeare’s time, Cymbeline would have been it.

Michael Makar, Joe Lewis, and Marnie Kanarek with Sienna Goering
Michael Makar, Joe Lewis, and Marnie Kanarek with Sienna Goering. Photo by Will Kirk Photography.

Baltimore Shakespeare Factory resides at the St. Mary’s Outreach Center, which houses a secret jewel, the Great Hall, a beautiful chapel fitted with an equally lovely stage, ideal for Renaissance productions. The pew benches are embarrassingly squeaky, but comfortable and non-confining, accompanied by the delightful aroma of well-kept old wood.

Long ago, I’d planned to read all of “The Collected Works Of Shakespeare,” and was attracted to Cymbeline because of similarities in our names. Since then, I’ve wished to see it produced onstage. Fast-forward twenty-some years, about the right time to forget plot details but remember I loved reading the play. Fortunately, the show opens with exposition about the central character, a fellow called Posthumus Leonatus, who’s been orphaned and raised by the eponymous King.

The play progresses in a straightforward Romeo and Juliet fashion initially, makes a sharp twist, another twist, additional complications, then everything becomes truly muddled. It is, essentially, a play about lies and the people who believe them. The best opportunity for audiences to follow the convoluted tale is to hear the opening exposition of the show, a casual conversation between gentlepersons traversing the chapel’s aisle, here representing a street, as do the watchmen who speak of the ghost of Hamlet’s father as that show begins.

To encourage early arrival, Baltimore Shakespeare Factory presents pre-show entertainment starting half an hour before showtime, a tidbit mentioned in BSF’s press. I wrongly interpret “pre-show entertainment” as a euphemism for “themed cocktails, schmoozing with production staff” because there is actual merriment onstage before the play opens. No cocktails, but beer, wine, and other refreshments are sold in the chapel’s nave beforehand and at intermission.

Production values are consistent with the spirit of the script. In The Bard’s time, a show would perforce be low-tech, and BSF deliberately employs less sophisticated mechanics than those currently both available and affordable. It’s rather charming. Well-trained actors enunciate clearly and project sufficiently, even in quiet moments, eliminating body-mic-based distortions or feedback. Music and sound effects are live (Music Director, Jamie Horrell).

The title part of Cymbeline is played by company member Chris Cotterman, script in hand, substituting for the listed performer. His delivery is emotional and his holding a script doesn’t subvert the pace of the show; the costume is, happily, a good fit. Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen is personified by Sienna Goering, whose cool aristocratic features counterbalance her spirited performance.

Imogen’s love interest and catalyst for the action, Posthumus Leonatus, is played by Adam Henricksen, whose dynamic volume and energy are invigorating even when they irritate due to Leonatus’s idiocy. Appearing with early setup for the story is Marcy Xexelia, who provides clear exposition in each of her many roles, particularly Cornelius, who seems to be a pharmacist. As Pisanio, the one character of steadfast persona and stalwart integrity, Kaitlyn Fowler impresses with vocal nuance and facial expressiveness.

Sienna Goering as Imogen, with Marnie Kanarek, Michael Makar, and Joe Lewis
Sienna Goering as Imogen, with Marnie Kanarek, Michael Makar, and Joe Lewis. Photo by Will Kirk Photography.

Elijah Moreland, playing Iachimo, makes such a charming antagonist you sort of hate to hate him. Not so Melissa Robinson, who is every inch the evil Queen stepmother and all but twirls her mustache in her villainy. Playing her son, Warren Harris portrays petulant prince Cloten as so self-absorbed a ninny that Second Lord (again, Marcy Xexelia) says:

That such a crafty devil as is his mother

Should yield the world this ass! a woman that

Bears all down with her brain; and this her son

Cannot take two from twenty, for his heart,

And leave eighteen.

Set pieces are sparse, reflecting Shakespeare’s original staging. The play moves briskly, with few set-necessitated pauses. The dialogue tells us where we are, in an “Aha! I see we have arrived in Athens!” sort of way, accelerating a piece that could drag significantly under less capable direction than the deft hands of director Tom DeLise.

Costume Designer Kendra Shapanus’ costuming in Cymbeline is illustrative and obvious. The king and queen wear crowns. Cloten, the prince, wears a hat, but a fancy one. Soldiers look like soldiers, servants are less finely garbed than gentlepersons, so despite seeing the same faces in multiple parts, costuming makes evident who is in each scene, even when characters are disguised.

Cymbeline is absolutely worth seeing, even if you think you don’t like Shakespeare. This production showcases the melodrama and comedy of Shakespeare in ways not often attempted by other companies, and it’s refreshing to watch a show that doesn’t weave technological wizardry into its fabric, choosing to rely instead on the ingenuity of the performers, the integrity of the language, and the intelligence of the audience.  

Running Time: One and a half hours, with one 15-minute intermission; 30-minute pre-show and optional post-show talkback with the cast.

Cymbeline, presented by Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, plays through March 10, 2019, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 4 pm in the Great Hall of St Mary’s Outreach Center, 3900 Roland Avenue, Baltimore, MD. Purchase tickets online