|Cymbeline, the king of Britain (Ken Baltin), and his malevolent queen (Marya Lowry) in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s no-frills production of “Cymbeline.’’ (Stratton Mccrady)|
Incongruities still clash in inventive ‘Cymbeline’
SOMERVILLE — In the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s most recent foray into the works of its namesake playwright, the company pulled out all the stops with an ambitious, swashbuckling production of “Henry IV, Parts I and II.’’
Now, ASP is presenting a decidedly lesser work by Shakespeare: the seldom-performed “Cymbeline.’’
Director Doug Lockwood and his cast of seven wage a valiant and creative struggle against the flaws of this late romance: a plot that is convoluted to the point of inanity, one villain who is not much more than a bush-league Iago, another who is an evil stepmother out of
“Cymbeline’’ is performed in a no-frills performance space. The stage consists of a rug-covered platform raised a few inches off the floor, around which the audience is ranged on all four sides. The seven members of the cast, most of whom play multiple roles, are attired in matching white tunics and trousers.
When they are not involved in a scene, the actors sit in plain view of the audience in metal folding chairs arrayed against a wall. In an inventive touch, Lockwood equips the offstage performers with musical instruments, which they use to supply atmosphere and, as needed, sound effects.
Perhaps this move was born of budgetary necessity, but it pays some creative dividends when, for example, Cymbeline, the king of Britain, played by Ken Baltin, slaps his daughter Imogen (Brooke Hardman). The moment is conveyed not with one of those fake stage slaps, which would be even more obvious than usual in such a confined space, but rather with the dramatic clash of a cymbal.
What sent the king into such a rage? It was Cymbeline’s discovery that Imogen had secretly married Posthumus Leonatus (De’Lon Grant), who, though he is now a gentleman of means, was of unacceptably humble birth. Banished by the king, Posthumus ends up in Rome, where he encounters a knavish fellow named Iachimo (Neil McGarry).
Within moments of meeting him and hearing him boast of his lady’s virtue, Iachimo wagers Posthumus that he can seduce the fair Imogen. Posthumus, for some reason, accepts the bet, and off to Britain Iachimo goes. Though Imogen spurns his advances, Iachimo engages in an elaborate subterfuge that enables him to obtain a bracelet Posthumus had given his new bride, plus intimate knowledge of both Imogen’s bedchamber and body.
Convinced by this “evidence’’ that Imogen has cuckolded him, Posthumus orders his servant, Pisanio (Risher Reddick), to kill her. It is a directive Pisanio would much prefer not to follow. Meanwhile, Cymbeline’s wife, a malevolent queen (Marya Lowry) who likes to dabble in poison potions, also has deadly designs on her stepdaughter Imogen, and on the king. The queen wants Cloten (played by Grant), her loutish son from a previous marriage who lusts after Imogen, to assume the throne.
At Pisanio’s urging, Imogen disguises herself as a boy and sets out for Rome in hopes of eventually setting her husband straight. This may be a good time to mention that King Cymbeline also had two sons from a previous marriage, but they were stolen from him two decades earlier, when they were toddlers, by a lord the king had unjustly banished, named Belarius (here called Belaria and played by Lowry). Raised by said lord, Guiderius (Danny Bryck) and Arviragus (Reddick), now dwell with Belaria in a cave, and have no idea that they are princes.
After numerous complications, including a move toward war by Rome against England, these narrative threads converge in a scene of eventual reconciliation that is not terribly plausible or satisfying.
Despite the flaws of “Cymbeline,’’ the ASP performances range from capable to winning. Grant moves skillfully between the forcefulness (and blindness) of Posthumus and the malignancy of Cloten, while Hardman, as Imogen, earns our sympathy with the passion and poignancy she brings to the character. While Iachimo’s motivations remain murky, McGarry plays him with glittering eyes that suggest a character poised halfway between mischief and malice.
Lowry brings a silken menace to the queen, though there is a one-dimensionality to the character’s villainy that she can’t surmount. Similarly constrained is Baltin, as Cymbeline. So vivid in the recent Underground Railway Theater production of Naomi Wallace’s “The Fever Chart: Three Visions of The Middle East,’’ Baltin is stuck playing a title character who is a bit of a cipher — one of the numerous incongruities of “Cymbeline.’’
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.