A couple years ago, I read Cymbeline and wrote a blog post about it here. A couple weeks ago, I finally had an opportunity to see it performed live at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. They also have a very good production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this year, which I highly recommend. But, if it’s at all possible to go and you can only see one of the two, I strongly recommend seeing Cymbeline.
First, this is a play that is rarely produced, so it’s not an opportunity that arrives very often. As I wrote in my blog post, there are some mixed-genre issues that make it less popular, as well as some character behaviors that have not aged well — case in point, the Elizabethan obsession with wives cheating on their husbands, Posthumous’ order to have his wife Imogen murdered after he’s tricked into believing she cheated on him, and her forgiveness of him at the end of the play…
…Which is all the more reason why this particular production shines so well in 2017. Set as a turn-of-the-20th-century vaudeville company, Illinois Shakespeare plays up the “mellerdrammer” quality of the play’s more soap-opera-like elements with a “pianist” character. The pianist is obviously not canon, but proves to be a wise choice for a couple of reasons. He immediately makes himself useful at the beginning in helping to “translate” a soliloquy full of exposition (delivered by a psychic circus performer in a turban) to ensure that the audience understands, and continues to interject responses to actions throughout the play. While unconventional in a Shakespeare production, this is especially helpful when the original language is especially obtuse to modern ears.
The pianist’s greater value, however, is in helping the audience interpret the play beyond textual notes. Characters’ reactions that might seem odd to the audience are followed by comments such as (and I paraphrase here), “When you’re lonely and missing your significant other, it’s easy to make rash choices that you probably wouldn’t make otherwise.” At the end of the play, the pianist draws a comparison between the characters of Cymbeline and his family with King Lear and his family — suggesting that the happy ending at the end of Cymbeline is what Lear might have wished for, and the importance of forgiveness.
This proved to be the sweetest possible ending to what is largely considered a “problem” play, and the overall experience was very enjoyable. Beyond the modern adaptation, the cast and crew did a phenomenal job of bringing the characters and actions to life, even with six total actors — some of whom played three or four different parts. This led to some additional humor in scenes such as Posthumous fighting Cloten, as one actor played both parts and moved back and forth to either side of a screen in a costume that was split down the middle to show what the two characters had been wearing in previous scenes. The queen is a man in drag as a bearded lady. It’s just a lot of fun.