Cymbeline has long been regarded as a Shakespearian hot mess, what with plot convolutions that take “suspension of disbelief” to new heights and enough characters and disguises to populate a streaming miniseries. Samuel Johnson hated it. George Bernard Shaw once called it “stagey trash of the lowest melodramatic order” and later rewrote the final act.
The play has inspired a variety of revisions and adaptations over the centuries, being set in such places as an American West cattle ranch, the Confederacy, India in the British Raj, and South Sudan. The characters in the most recent movie version were motorcycle gangsters and corrupt cops. Rude Mechanicals’ take on Cymbeline emphasized its fairy tale elements, as did a Washington Shakespeare Theater production 10 years ago, framing Shakespeare’s story as a tale read by a father to his semi-interested kid (Alan and Stephen Duda, respectively), Princess Bride fashion.
It works. Rude Mechanicals Director Erin Nealer steered the actors toward a wry, knowing, broadly comic style that regularly drew well-earned laughter from the audience (even the director’s note and the program bios faithfully followed this style). Her adaptation slashed much of the expository underbrush from the play, along with much of its length. Some portions of the original text, like Jupiter’s arrival to help set matters straight, were excised entirely, probably to the relief of all concerned. The portions of Shakespeare’s scenes that were retained focused on the key points of the story for the central characters, making the plotline more readily understandable to the audience than might otherwise have been the case.
Cymbeline is very much an ensemble show, with several actors making strong impressions. These included Bill Bodie (Belarius, a hearty woodsman), Sean Eustis (Guiderius, a prince who doesn’t know he is a prince), Evan Ochershausen (the trickster Iachimo), Sara Pfanz (the faithful and perceptive servant Pisanio), Melissa Schick (the scheming Queen, purple hair and all), and Katie Wanschura (the virtuous, much put-upon, Imogen).
The play does have moments of genuine, even tragic, feeling, as when Imogen believes that her husband, Posthumous (Erin McDonald) is, well, actually posthumous. In fact, it’s the cloddish Cloten (Linda Dye), disguised as Posthumous, who has had his head removed and slipped into one of the production’s versatile wooden boxes. In such moments, the rapid change of emotional tone from the general hilarity could be difficult to manage smoothly.
Per Greenbelt Arts Center health protocols, all the actors wore masks, which helpfully had their character names printed on them. In the intimate space of the theater, this seldom impaired the ability of the audience to comprehend their lines.
The physical production was delightfully simple. On stage right was a bed where the kid reclined with a menagerie of stuffed animals, his father’s chair, and a prop table from which actors grabbed plastic swords and other items. The main set element was a tall group of hinged flats, which opened book fashion to be Cymbeline’s castle, a bar, a forest scene, etc. It was the father’s job to turn the pages as he told the story.
Appropriate to the fanciful style of the production, which made no attempt at realism, Linda Dye’s costumes would have been right at home at a Renaissance Festival. Imogen’s satiny pink dress, the Queen’s iridescent gown, and Pisanio’s black and gold tunic were noteworthy, as were the varied boots of many of the characters.
This Cymbeline was limited to a one-weekend run in person and the evening was great fun. Audience members who missed it have a further chance to see a recording of the November 6 performance on Rude Mechanicals’ YouTube channel.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.