Most of us know some Shakespeare plays. There is a stable of the more popular productions that are done over and over again. In this production of Cymbeline at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theater Company, you will see bits and pieces of most of them. Additionally, director Karen Paisley makes a choice to skew the production to include a more female connection by swapping out the character of Cymbeline to be a queen rather than a king. She also gender swaps various other players in this smart and well produced show.
Cymbeline is reset in a vague dystopian society, which would make one think it was a dramatic piece. In fact, it was listed in the First Folio as a tragedy. However, modern critics have often reclassified it as a romance or comedy. In this version, Paisley plays to the natural comedy of the script and it works exceptionally well. While not as laugh out loud funny as the standards, the audience is treated to some fun and some excellent Shakespearean acting.
The plot has all the requisite characters. Queen Cymbeline (Manon Halliburton) stars as the monarch who has one daughter, Imogen (Marie Warner) who is set to take over the throne. The Duke (Scott Cox) plays her friend but in reality is plotting to force his son Cloten (Matthew Emerick) in her place. The protective matriarch exiles Imogen’s husband, Posthumus Leonatus, who was an orphan she took in and raised but whom she and The Duke feel is unsuitable for Imogen. Posthumus’ servant Pisania (Megan Wagner) stays at court and helps keep him in touch with Imogen.
When Leonatus gets to Rome, he raves about his true love who will be forever faithful to Iachimo (Dalton Mobley). Iachimo, wonderfully crafted by Mobley, challenges Leonatus on that claim and wagers he can seduce Imogen and bring absolute evidence of his conquest back as proof. Iachimo is the type of character to go to any lengths to win and does in fact get the proof required, but not in the spirit of his wager. He goes to some rather comedic lengths to win this bet.
Parts of the story seem so familiar, such as how when confronted with the proof Leonatus buys it completely, disavows his love and seeks revenge. And it’s Shakespeare so we go along with it. From there the plot twists several times as Cauis Lucius (Andy Penn) confronts Queen Cymbeline about debts not paid to the Romans. The Duke and Cloten advise to not pay it, as it is an insult, and things deteriorate into a war.
In another twist, some odd characters in exile add to the comedy. Paisley has some actors playing two and sometimes three roles which can be a bit confusing at first, but becomes clearer as the show continues. Exiled Belarius (again by Scott Cox) and his two children Guideria (Nicole Hall) and Arvigarius (Tommy Waller) have fun with their roles as the trappers trying to eek out a living in the wilderness.
There is much comedy, some drama and some excellent performances. Some stand outs are Mobley’s Iachimo, Wagner’s Pisania, Hall’s Guideria and after a bit of a rocky start, Emerick’s Cloten. Uniformly the handling of Shakespeare’s dated tongue is excellent, which really adds to the experience. The actors are clear on what they are saying with each line well crafted to help the audience follow along.
The play is long, but has been significantly cut without losing the story and in fact, probably increasing the comedy. This is the same version as the Royal Shakespeare Company used. It clocks in at over 3 hours with one intermission, but it never drags or feels long. It’s well paced and as the story wraps up it moves us along with it. The ending is perhaps a tad pat and might have had more comedy infused in it as it wraps things up a nicely as a Christmas present.
The stage creatively places the audience on opposite sides of the stage while the action takes place on various levels. With so many scenes, the sparseness of the set allows very quick scene changes. The fight scenes by Logan Black are a bit spotty. Some are excellent while others seem very staged and fall a bit short of the mark. Cymbeline is a very interesting amalgamation of jealousy, treachery, war and romance. Overall it’s a very smart production that blends many elements from the well known plays into one entertaining evening of theater.