The production starts out in a casual mode; the actors introduce themselves to the audience members, and we can see them joking around and singing (on opening night, they did a seemingly impromptu jam on "Pinball Wizard"). But when the play starts, everybody gets down to business quickly. In this streamlined Cymbeline, eight actors play ten characters (cut down from more than two dozen in Shakespeare's text), and as the actors are introduced, we get succinct explanations of who the characters are. This eliminates a lot of tedious exposition and gets us right to the drama. And the simple but smart staging heightens the play's tension; for instance, O'Connor takes two scenes where characters explode in rage and stages the speeches simultaneously, so we see the characters directing their anger at each other. Even the fight scenes are staged cleverly: one riotously funny fight finds a nobleman with a sword defeated by a bumpkin armed only with a bucket. (Michael Cosenza is the fight director.)
There are a number of excellent performances, including Isaiah Ellis as the cocky and crude Cloten; Kevin Rodden, who struts with confidence as the evil Iachimo, then trembles and clutches a walking stick as the elderly outcast Belarius; and Hannah Van Sciver, who is coldly imperious as the queen and lively as Belarius' son. But Marisa Lerman's Princess Imogen is inconsistent and hard to root for. And in the title role of the domineering king, Sam Sherburne seems as if he's in a different play altogether. Popping his eyes and bellowing all his lines (and sometimes just uttering guttural cries from offstage), he never gels with the rest of the cast.
That's a shame, because the other seven actors have terrific chemistry. That's especially notable when they're playing the music composed by Patrick Lamborn, who also plays one of Belarius' sons. The music is played by the actors on guitar, mandolin, upright bass and drums, and it's used very effectively, especially in the scene where Iachimo attempts to seduce Imogen. As Iachimo's words become more menacing, a loping figure on the bass speeds up, ratcheting up the pressure that Imogen feels. Meanwhile, brushes are dragged across a cymbal, making it seem like a storm is brewing. It's a compelling moment in a fine Cymbeline, a production that makes its best points with straightforward simplicity.
Cymbeline runs through August 19, 2012, at The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom Street. Tickets are free on a first come, first served basis, available at the Box Office three hours before curtain each day. For more information, call the Box Office at (215) 496-8001 or visit www.phillyshakespeare.org.