REVIEW: “Cymbeline” at Shakespeare & Company

Shakespeare’s “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral”

by Barbara Waldinger

Congratulations to Tina Packer and her supremely talented and versatile cast and crew on their gorgeous production of Cymbeline at Shakespeare & Company!  We are transported back to the early glory days of the company, outdoors at the Mount, when performers surrounded the audience as they brought to life the wondrous magic of theatre.

Cymbeline was, until now, the only one of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays Packer had not directed. Written in 1609, one of the last in the canon, the play is rarely produced, possibly because it is so difficult to mount, combining disparate elements, themes and plots from the playwright’s earlier works.  It features more than thirty characters and comprises a mix of comedy and tragedy that defies classification.

Helped by judicious cutting, nine chameleon-like actors, and a dazzling array of costume designs (bravo Tyler Kinney!), Packer bravely sets this play on a nearly empty stage with a few ladders, traps and a bed (Kris Stone is the scenic designer).  From the opening of the play, during which the actors appear in “neutral” Shakespearean garb to provide introduction, exposition and explanations (this device is used in some transitions as well), we are thrust into an ever-evolving, fast-paced world.  Every actor portrays several characters, often changing costume in full view of the audience, either upstage with the aid of clothing racks (the inner stage) or downstage in mid-sentence.  Splendid work by black-clothed assistants, who, like Japanese stagehands, suddenly appear and undress/dress the actors without interrupting the action!

Under the tutelage of voice and text coach Gwendolyn Schwinke the actors use various accents to further distinguish their characters.  Lighting designer Deb Sullivan finds ways to frame actors not only onstage but wherever they can be found:  in the balcony above the stage, in the first and second levels of the theatre among the audience, climbing up or down ladders stage right or left, and in the aisles.   Sound designer and composer David Reiffel creates tension with drums and trumpets to accompany the war scenes, and the sounds of guitars and harps to heighten the emotional ones.  He also scores one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful and moving songs, sensitively delivered by the entire cast at a tragic moment.  Thanks to Jason Asprey’s skilled fight choreography, the players scramble from duels to battles with acrobatic intensity, and Kristin Wold adds grace and dignity through the tableaux she creates at the beginning and end of the play.

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The complex story concerns the love shared by King Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen and her husband, Posthumus, which is tested by the villain, Iachimo, and the machinations of her wicked stepmother, who plots to place her cloddish son, Cloten on the British throne.  In the meantime, a seemingly pointless war between ancient Britain and the Roman Empire offers parallels and valuable advice for our contemporary world.

Every actor in this play, many of whom have been with Shakespeare & Company for years, brings specificity and originality to each of the characters he or she portrays. The physical demands, as they switch in seconds from one role to another, require flexibility and a strong focus.  The production is overflowing with memorable moments; a few are particularly worthy of mention.  Jonathan Epstein, in the title role, nearly brings us to tears despite an improbably comic ending, but moves us to laughter as the Roman Philario cuddling his obviously stuffed cat.   Jason Asprey as Cloten spends his time blustering and planning revenge on just about everyone, but cannot sheath his sword without stabbing himself, while Epstein and Asprey are hilarious as executioners looking for work.  In a highlight of the production,   Josh Aaron McCabe as Iachimo slinks around Imogen’s bedroom, up to no good.  Nigel Gore’s moving monologues as Belarius are balanced by his comic Dr. Cornelius, who doesn’t shrink from badmouthing the queen to her husband.  Watch Thomas Brazzle as Posthumus come of age, evolving from ardent lover, to heedless braggart, to duped husband, screaming and crying along the way; while he and McCabe enjoy clowning as attendants of the Queen with their Scottish plaids and loud fans.  Empathize with Deaon Griffin-Pressley as the loyal Pisanio desperately attempting to obey the opposing demands of his master and mistress.  Witness Tamara Hickey’s complete transformation from the innocent Imogen to the disguised Fidele, thoroughly believable both physically and emotionally in masculine and feminine garb.  Can that be Bella Merlin, playing both the evil Queen in a huge hoop skirt with winged cloak, and the eager boy Aviragus? And catch the triumphant expression on Ella Loudon’s face, as her Guiderius proudly confesses that he has beheaded an enemy.  Priceless.

In this singular production of tragedy superimposed on comedy (or vice versa) evoking both laughter and tears, Cymbeline typifies Shakespeare & Company at its best.

Cymbeline runs from July 4—August 6 at Shakespeare & Company’s Tina Packer Playhouse.  For tickets call 413-637-3353 or online at shakespeare.org.

Shakespeare & Company presents Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.  Cast:  Jason Asprey (Cloten/Soothsayer/Jailer), Thomas Brazzle (Posthumus/Queen’s Attendant), Jonathan Epstein (Cymbeline/Philario/Jailer/Jupiter), Nigel Gore (Belarius/Caius Lucius/Cornelius), Deaon Griffin-Pressley (Pisanio/son of Leonatus), Tamara Hickey (Imogen/son of Leonatus), Ella Loudon (Guiderius/Helen), Josh Aaron McCabe (Iachimo/Queen’s Attendant/Leonatus’ Father), Bella Merlin (Queen/Aviragus/Leonatus’Mother).  Director:  Tina Packer; Costume Designer:  Tyler Kinney; Sound Designer/Composer:  David Reiffel; Lighting Designer:  Deb Sullivan; Set Designer:  Kris Stone; Voice/Text Coach:  Gwendolyn Schwinke; Fight Director:  Jason Asprey; Movement Choreographer:  Kristin Wold; Production Stage Manager:  Hope Rose Kelly.  Running Time:  2 hours 50 minutes including intermission; at Shakespeare & Company’s Tina Packer Playhouse, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA, from July 4; closing August 6.

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