Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Cymbeline
Great River Shakespeare Festival
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of The Servant of Two Masters


Alex Givens and Anique Clements
Photo by Grace Hill
As part of its sixteenth season, Great River Shakespeare Festival is presenting its first production of Cymbeline, among the more obscure of Shakespeare's works. It is a rambling affair, with a convoluted plot even by the Bard's standards and a conclusion that requires the confession of six characters to sort things out. It decidedly has the lyrical and imagistic language of any Shakespeare play, but without any of the famed soliloquies or memorable turns of phrase that have are part of our shared cultural inheritance. Credit goes to Great River Shakespeare Festival for trusting its audience to take an interest in this rarely seen work, and for rewarding us with a striking, absorbing production that succeeds in every way.

The first recorded production of Cymbeline was in 1611, five years before Shakespeare's death. The first folio classified it as a tragedy, but since then has is usually been grouped with other plays Shakespeare wrote in that late stage of his career, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest and Pericles, as late romances. These plays share a more serious tone than the frisky comedies, but are less bleak than the tragedies, allowing for reconciliation and forgiveness even of terrible offenses. In Cymbeline, a bit of history is thrown in as well, with Britain colonized by Rome, installing a king Cymbeline (historically based on a Celtic king, Cunobeline) to rule locally but pay tribute (in the form of treasure) to Caesar.

King Cymbeline had three children by his first wife: two sons, kidnapped in their early years by a man seeking revenge for being unjustly accused and exiled by the king; and a daughter, Imogen. To continue the royal blood line, Imogen must marry a man of royal birth, and Cymbeline's second wife, the new Queen, conspires for that bridegroom—and heir to the throne—be Cloten, her son by her former marriage. However, Imogen detests the doltish Cloten and instead has secretly married Posthumus. Posthumus was born an orphan and raised in the court by Cymbeline himself, regarding him as a son in lieu of those lost to him, but not being of royal birth he is ineligible to wed Imogen. Upon discovering the secret wedding, Cymbeline is enraged and casts Posthumus out, and the young man flees to Rome.

In Rome, Posthumus brags about the virtuous wife waiting for him in Britain. A sinister-minded Italian, Iachimo, presses Posthumus to accept a wager that he could cause the fair lady to shed her vaunted virtue. Confident of Imogen's faithfulness, Posthumus does accept, and Iachimo journeys to London where, by deceitful means, he creates the illusion of succeeding at his gambit. This misrepresentation leads to near-calamitous choices made by both Posthumus and Imogen, while Pisanio, Posthumus' faithful servant, struggles to uphold the honor of both.

Common Shakespearean devices, such as forest encounters with humble woodsmen, gender-crossed disguises, mistaken identities, tokens of faithfulness changing hands, and long-separated siblings, are employed, along with a searing battle provoked by Cymbeline's refusal to pay tribute to Rome, a position stoked by the ambitious Queen. It's a lot to take in, an epic adventure and romance that touches on themes of trust, retribution and forgiveness.

Artistic Director Doug Scholz-Carlson directs this production using a palette of diverse shades to address the romantic, tragic, historic and comic, the latter mostly related to Cloten's outlandish vanity and cloddish behavior, as played by Alex Givens who, doing wonderful double duty, also plays the upstanding Posthumus.

Lighting, designed by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, and a dramatic musical underscore by Katharine Horowitz aid in the transitions in tone from scene to scene, with pacing that never lags so that, in spite of Cymbeline running the risk of feeling like a collection of mismatched parts, this production feels cohesive and coherent.

There are exceptions. In an early scene, Posthumus meets Iachimo, the Italian, along with a Spaniard and Frenchman. The Spaniard speaks not a word, but the Frenchman goes on at length in a campy French accent that obscures most of what he has to say, which feels wholly out of place, especially as no other character—they are all either Roman or English—speaks with an accent. In act two, a gory corpse is carried onto the stage, but the effect is one that prompts laughter from some audience members, even as it occurs in the context of serious business and one suspects was intended to horrify rather than amuse.

This aside, the production offers a richly satisfying introduction to Cymbeline and a wholly entertaining and engaging time at the theater. Oddly, the title character is not in truth the heart of the story. That distinction goes to Imogen, who, like many of Shakespeare's women, is given a complex inner life and authentic voice. She is persuasively played by Anique Clements, an actor who conveys emotions as if drawn from deep within: euphoric in love, crushed by betrayal, enlightened in forgiveness. In playing Imogen's two suitors, Posthumus—the one she cherishes—and Cloten—the one she rebuffs—Alex Givens stands as co-lead to Clements, creating two wholly different characters, one a comic fop, the other a star-crossed lover, giving each a fully realized portrayal.

Michael Fitzpatrick brings a royal tone to his Cymbeline, shining upon the occasions to rage or rejoice. As his Queen, Melissa Maxwell is fully realized villain, her ambition driving her every act as she conspires to deceive her husband, the king. She does admirable as Belarius, the man who long ago kidnapped Cymbeline's two sons, now living secluded deep in the forest. Benjamin Boucvalt is persuasively reptilian as Iachimo, making sport of love and faithfulness, and Tarah Flanagan projects warmth and fidelity as the servant Pisanio, who trusts his own judgment to save his master and his mistress from themselves. William Sturdivant, Blake Henri and De'Onna Prince round out the cast, all doing fine work in roles that support the play's thrusts and parries.

Set designer R. Eric Stone has given Cymbeline a burnished metallic shell, conjuring images of ancient Britain's civilization, while Rebecca Bernstein's costumes are suitably lush for those in power—in particular, the Queen's sweeping gown that seems designed to conceal her evil underpinnings—and rustic for the low-born characters. She uses comic anachronism, complete with sunglasses, to underscore Cloten's vapidness. Scholz-Carlson, in addition to directing, is an esteemed fight choreographer, and the production's physical encounter stirs excitement and a sense of danger.

It is curious that Shakespeare named the play Cymbeline, given that the king in this tale is truly a supporting character. Perhaps audiences expecting a play about an ancient king were confused by the story presented to them, contributing to the play's infrequency. Imogen and Posthumus might be a more apt title, and hint at the play's strong element of romance.

Cymbeline is unlikely to be re-christened, so the play must carry its title forward. It is not, at the end of the day, Shakespeare's unheralded masterpiece, but a lesser play that has merit in its rollicking plot, a strong multi-dimensional female lead character, two engaging suitors (one sulky but heroic, the other foolishly vain), two cunning villains (one who comes to a sorry end, the other who finds redemption), and a message of forgiveness that can certainly be put to good use in today's world. Great River Shakespeare Festival shines a light on Cymbeline with its robust and winning production, making clear that even lower rung Shakespeare is still a wonderful thing to behold.

Cymbeline, through August 4, 2019, at Great River Shakespeare Festival, Performing Arts Center of Winona State University, 450 Johnson Street, Winona MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $49.00; Students: $10.00 - $15.00. Discount Pass for all three mainstage shows area available. For schedule of performances and other event, and for tickets, call 507-474-7900 or visit GRSF.org.

Playwright: William Shakespeare; Director and Fight Choreographer: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Assistant Director: Ethan Graham Roeder; Scenic Design: R. Eric Stone; Lighting Design: Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; Costume Design: Rebecca Bernstein; Assistant Costume Designer: Kayli Warner; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Props Supervisor: Ivy Thomas; Text Coach: Victoria Teague; Composer: Katharine Horowitz; Intimacy Director: Tom Ringberg; Assistant Intimacy Director: Gaby Labotka; Music Director: Alan Dunbar; Production Manager: Joseph Millett; Stage Manager: Madison Tarchala; Assistant Stage Manager: Alexander Carey..

Cast: Benjamin Boucvalt (Iachimo), Anique Clements (Imogen), Michael Fitzpatrick (Cymbeline/Philario), Tarah Flanagan (Pisanio/Jailor), Alex Givens (Posthumus/Cloten), Blake Henri (1st Lord/Arvirargus), Melissa Maxwell (Queen/Belarius), De'Onna Prince (Caius Lucius/Cornelius), William Sturdivant (2nd Lord/Guidarius).


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