Theater Review: CSC’s “Cymbeline” — The Bard’s Greatest Hits?

By Erik Nikander

The CSC production maintains a sense of romantic adventure throughout, which makes it easier to accept some of the staging’s creative excesses — as well as the loop de loops of the Bard’s plotting.

Cymbeline by William Shakespeare. Directed by Fred Sullivan, Jr. Staged by the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company at the Parkman Bandstand, Boston Common, Boston, MA, through August 4. Free.

Daniel Duque-Estrada (Posthumus) and Nora Eschenheimer (Imogen) in the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of “Cymbeline.” Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva.

Shakespeare’s body of work covers a diverse range of genres, from bawdy comedies to blood-soaked revenge sagas. For this year’s Shakespeare on the Common production, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company chose Cymbeline, one of the Bard’s late and lesser-known works; it is rarely produced and I was pretty well unfamiliar with the script. As the sun went down over the Common, I couldn’t help but wonder just what sort of show I was in store for. What would the great playwright, nearing the end of his career, pull from his dramatic bag of tricks this time?

The answer turned out to be “everything but the kitchen sink.” Cymbeline feels a bit like Shakespeare re-playing his Greatest Hits, many of its elements bearing more than a passing resemblance to his other plays. There’s the backbiting royal intrigue that animates Hamlet and Richard III as well as the romantic wagers and misunderstandings that make The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing so enduringly funny. The result is, at times, a bloated mishmash; the narrative threatens to buckle under the weight of its many moving parts. But Commonwealth Shakespeare Company director Fred Sullivan Jr. manages to lighten the contraption up — accenting what is fresh and charming.

It all begins with an archetypal conflict: A father doesn’t approve of his daughter’s choice in men. The father in this case happens to be King Cymbeline of Britain (Tony Estrella), who manages to have the noble Posthumus Leonatus (Daniel Duque-Estrada) banished from the country even though he is married to Princess Imogen (Nora Eschenheimer).Though their love is tested by a variety of misadventures, including lecherous wooers, attempted poisonings, and even an all-out war between Britain and Italy, the lovers manage to keep their romance alive.

Plenty of narrative twists and turns pop up throughout. No spoilers here, partially because a lot of the evening’s fun lies in watching the story whirl by. CSC’s gripping production of Richard III last year was driven by its protagonist’s unbridled lust for vengeance. Cymbeline is a much friendlier beast, its bouncy fairy-tale energy heightened by Eric Southern’s colorful lighting, Elisabetta Polito’s costumes (lifted from disparate eras throughout history), and the quasi-German Expressionist set by Jessica Hill and Patrick Lynch. Sullivan maintains a sense of adventure throughout that makes it easier to digest the show’s creative excesses as well as the loop de loops of the Bard’s plotting.

Speaking of sustained playfulness, the cast brims with engaging performances, led by Nora Eschenheimer as the bold Princess Imogen. Regarded by critics as one of Shakespeare’s most modern, independent heroines, Imogen is forced for much of the play to struggle through vicissitudes with no allies, parrying unwanted suitors and threats made by her wicked stepmother the Queen (Jeanine Kane, playing her with Cruella de Vil bravado and a wardrobe to match). Eschenheimer strikes an ideal balance between vulnerability and ferocity in her performance; her Imogen doesn’t take guff from anyone, but that toughness doesn’t curdle the kindness at the character’s core.

The cast of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of “Cymbeline.” Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva.

Eschenheimer also makes Imogen’s desire for a life outside the palace walls psychologically convincing. She practically glows with happiness as she forges a brotherly bond with Belarius and his two sons; she’s finally able to escape the suffocating royal intrigue. In other plays, Shakespeare seems admiring of royalty, cheering on the supposedly stabilizing strengths of aristocracy. In contrast, Cymbeline’s vision of the upper crust comes off as bracingly critical. One of Imogen’s truest allies is beneath her in class — Pisanio the servant, played with heartbreaking loyalty and tenderness by Remo Airaldi. On the other hand, the play’s cruelest and/or most short-sighted characters are those who wield the most power. Perhaps near the end of his career the Bard was having some second thoughts about the royal power structure’s role in the world at large.

Though many elements in Cymbeline invite a modern, populist reading, others feel decidedly antiquated in 2019. The character of Iachimo resists updating. Though Jesse Hinson manages to energize the scheming lothario with an electric sense of physical comedy, the character is too quick to indulge in forced kisses and skeevy bedchamber stalkings to charm us. What might have come across as roguish wooing in the Bard’s day feels downright predatory now — so CSC’s goofy take on the character just doesn’t land right. Though Kelby Akin’s performance as the scheming Cloten is broad as well, he digs into the prince’s nastiness — instead of trying to temper it.

While Cymbeline‘s poetic and dramatic merits are plentiful, they have not gone unchallenged.. George Bernard Shaw found the ending so flawed that he wrote an entirely new, compact version. I understand the impulse to rewrite. The play’s final scene brings all the characters together in the same room, unraveling the many narrative knots that have accumulated throughout the show. The characters, of course, are surprised by all the revelations. But the audience already knows what’s what. The CSC cast does its best to keep its vitality through this stretch but, despite that, it still feels as if the Bard is treading water a bit during the big wrap-up.

Cymbeline may lack the theatrical sharpness and dramatic muscle of Shakespeare’s best scripts, but on stage it manages to be a rollicking treat, at least when it is treated with the proper flair. Yes, the script forces the cast to juggle a few too many balls in the air, but the CSC cast brings plenty of gusto to the circus-like theatrics. Given the performers’ high spirits and the appealingly offbeat visual panache of the design team, this freewheeling Cymbeline irons out the Bard’s dramaturgical bumps.

Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.

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