A Rare and Satisfying CYMBELINE at Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre

CYMBELINE is one of Shakespeare’s later and lesser-known works, not often performed and hard to classify. Though inspired by legends about an ancient British king named Cunobelinus, it is not a true history, since the playwright added many invented sub-plots to his complex story. It has been called both a tragedy and a comedy, but is more accurately a romance, with a dominant theme of spousal jealousy (perhaps borrowed from Boccaccio’s DECAMERON II.9), similar to that of OTHELLO, and with a poison potion à la ROMEO AND JULIET–albeit with a very different outcome. With its first documented performance in April 1611, CYMBELINE also revisits one of the Bard’s favorite devices of mistaken identity, employed earlier in THE COMEDY OF ERRORS, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, and TWELFTH NIGHT. Consequently, this rich pastiche has been placed among Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays,” as much for its defiance of easy categorization as for its theme of a protagonist facing a moral dilemma.

Photo credit: Kate Raines

Director David O’Connor smartly balances all these elements in the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s free summer production by The Classical Acting Academy, PST’s eight-week session that immerses young professionals in the time-honored techniques of the classics and culminates in a full-stage show. This year’s talented class had the experience of working with not just one of Philadelphia’s best directors, but also with a seasoned text coach (J.J. Van Name) and an accomplished combat director (Michael Cosenza). The training resulted in a clear and strong production, with fine performances from the entire emerging ensemble.

O’Connor prefaces his well-edited version of CYMBELINE with a clever and charming introduction, as the young cast, attired in street clothes, hangs out onstage, makes music, and casually chats with the audience. The curtain speech, delivered by the engaging Kevin Rodden, then introduces the individual cast members and their roles. One by one they take their identifying costume accessories from a trunk (set in the middle of a bare stage) and don them, to help familiarize the audience with Shakespeare’s eight main characters and pivotal props.

As both the innocent princess-bride Imogen (alternately called “Innogen” in early references) and in the guise of her male alter-ego Fidele (meaning “faithful”), Marisa Lerman is persuasively pure and sincere. Consistent with age-old tradition, the good Imogen wears virginal white, while her evil stepmother The Queen, played with relish by Hannah Van Sciver, is clad in black (and red stiletto heels!). In one of the production’s most memorable and inventive scenes, Imogen and her secret husband Posthumus Leonatus (Brooks Russell), wrongly convinced by Iachimo of his wife’s infidelity, simultaneously deliver powerful he said/she said monologues in an impassioned direct address to the audience, while perambulating the stage in a state of increasing agitation.

Rodden, in dual parts, skillfully distinguishes between his two characters–the cocky, cunning, and ultimately repentant Iachimo, and the rustic Belarius, bent with age and supported by a walking stick. In supporting roles, Isaiah Ellis is appropriately cloddish as Cloton, the arrogant ill-fated son of The Queen, who plots with his mother to marry his step-sister Imogen and to seize the throne of her father Cymbeline; and Sam Sherburne is bold and blustery as the king, whose bellowing can be heard even when he is offstage. Impressive original music and a cappella obsequies by Patrick Lamborn–a delight as the stolen prince Arviragus/Cadwal–inform and enhance the shifting moods of the play, as do live sound effects by the ensemble (including chirping birds and whispering winds). Rounding out the cast is Noah Levine in an able performance as Pisanio, the loyal and sympathetic servant of Posthumus, who, during his restless night, had “not slept one wink.”

Both O’Connor and his Academy students have done an excellent job of making CYMBELINE enjoyable and comprehensible; there are no problems with PST’s staging of this “problem play.” CYMBELINE’s actors now have the credentials and the opportunity to be considered for the company’s upcoming mainstage productions opening in March, including the highly anticipated OTHELLO starring Forrest McClendon–so be sure to look for them on stage again this spring! August 1-19, 2012; phillyshakespeare.org.

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