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Shakespeare Repertory

at the Ruth Page Theatre

One of Shakespeare’s later and less familiar plays, Cymbeline is best known for just one couplet: “Golden lads and girls all must, / As chimneysweepers, come to dust.” But with a fast-moving, complex, and circuitous plot full of delightful complications–cross-dress disguises, sleep-inducing poisons, king’s sons raised as peasants, even a late-night visit from old Jupiter, king of the gods–it’s a grand piece, ripe for an imaginative production. Happily, Shakespeare Repertory gives the work its due. With actors who can speak the text vividly, a director who understands the script’s many levels, and a design team with the vision and skill to share with the audience the sheer pleasure of stagecraft, this is a rousing show.

Based directly on material from Holinshed’s Chronicles and Boccaccio’s Decameron, Cymbeline also seems to draw on the fairy tale “Snow White” for inspiration; to my ears, it carries clear echoes of Romeo and Juliet and Othello, as well. The story concerns Imogen, daughter of Cymbeline, king of Britain in the days of the Roman Empire (and the Roman gods). Imogen has married Posthumus, a gentleman of questionable birth, in defiance of her father’s wishes that she wed his stepson Cloten. Cymbeline banishes Posthumus–an unfair act which, it develops, mirrors Cymbeline’s earlier banishment of his loyal subject Belarius. In Italy, Posthumus encounters Iachimo, who, taunts him about Imogen’s fidelity. Iachimo travels to England to prove his case by seducing Imogen; failing, he contrives a lie to convince Posthumus that Imogen has been unfaithful. The vengeful Posthumus orders his servant Pisanio to kill Imogen; instead, Pisanio leaves Imogen in the forest, where (dressed as a boy) she comes under the protection of Belarius and his two sons–who are not really his sons but the children of Cymbeline, kidnapped as infants by Belarius in revenge for his banishment. Further complicating matters is the plotting of the evil queen, Cymbeline’s wife, who plans to murder Imogen and Cymbeline to secure the throne for Cloten; the queen orders the court doctor to whip up a deadly potion for Imogen, but the doctor delivers a drug that only induces sleep. On top of all this, Britain faces attack by the Romans. The British people put aside their numerous feuds and grudges to defeat the invaders, setting the stage for a scene of multiple reunions and reconciliations that would have done Gilbert and Sullivan proud.

As in most of Shakespeare’s plays, a key theme of Cymbeline is forgiveness. Paralleling Cymbeline’s mistreatment of Posthumus and Belarius with Posthumus’s mistrust of the loyal Imogen–and, in ironic contrast, Cymbeline’s misplaced faith in his queen with Posthumus’s acceptance of Iachimo’s lie–Shakespeare notes the responsibility that comes with dominance in unequal relations between king and subject and man and woman. In a world filled with deceit, murder, and sexual and political warfare, the best and truest use of power is the exercise of mercy. And with mercy as a common bond, the characters are successfully united against outsiders–whether they be Roman soldiers, Italian seducers, or a treacherous wife and her ambitious ass of a son.

To make such a story work, a director must find the right balance between being faithful to the original and having fun with it. This balance is the great strength of the production Barbara Gaines has directed. The show has its share of contemporary touches: a fantasy-film sensibility in the smoky visual effects that transport the audience to the dreamscape in which the play is set, a high-tech thunder-and-lightning appearance by Jupiter, and the booming sonorities of Philip Glass’s music on the extra-resonant sound system designed by Robert Neuhaus. But at its core this is traditional Shakespeare, free of the unnecessary “conceptualizing” too frequently used to hide the actors’ inadequacies. Since this superb ensemble is anything but inadequate, Gaines has no need for gimmicks. The cast has the verbal skill and physical presence to give Shakespeare’s poetic images a sense of urgency and immediacy while respecting their formality, and their movements are elegant without being effete. Especially strong impressions are made by Peter Aylward and Lisa Dodson as Posthumus and Imogen, a robust and passionate couple whose strong temperaments nearly drive them apart; Ernest Perry Jr., who brings a humorously hurried little run to his generally dignified Pisanio; Henry Godinez, who engages the audience’s understanding, if not sympathy, for his too-cunning Iachimo; Johnny Lee Davenport as the storyteller who frames the action; and William J. Norris, David Cameron, and Michael Halberstam as Belarius and his supposed sons, the commoners whose nobility brings the king to his senses.

The showiest and most entertaining performance is the one that treads most dangerously in a contemporary style: Ross Lehman’s cloddish, comically coarse Cloten. Shaping each line and its accompanying movements with the keen precision of a first-rate farceur, Lehman makes the bullying, bratty Cloten a modern figure Eddie Haskell would feel right at home with. If the other actors played their parts this way, the show would fall apart; but as the exception, it’s a brilliant, risky performance that underscores Cloten’s role as the outsider in the play’s broadly extended family.

Supporting the cast are Michael Merritt’s ingenious set–a simple-looking series of wood-paneled walls and levels that reveal surprisingly flexible movement–and, especially, Robert Shook’s endlessly inventive and always beautiful lighting. With his fairy-tale palette of colors and his perfect eye for shadow, Shook transforms the same set into one location after another: a dimly lit bedroom, a spooky prison cell, a starry night in the woodland, and a sun-dappled royal hall worthy of the play’s climactically mounting mood of joy. The fight choreography by David Woolley and Bruce A. Young, and the special effects contrived by Young and Phil Eickhoff, add an extra measure of excitement and energy to the expansive spirit and eloquence of this wonderful work.