An interesting start to our weekend in Ashland this year: this summer, the wildfires in southern Oregon and far northern California have been unusually fierce – and the weather has been just exactly right to cause the air quality in the Ashland area to become unusually ghastly. As a result, evening performances on the outdoor Elizabethan stage had been cancelled for the three nights just prior to our arrival. Fortunately, matters improved markedly on Friday, and the scheduled presentation of Cymbeline went on as planned.
From a literary standpoint, Cymbeline is a tricky and difficult play – it’s perhaps the least known of the late cluster of Shakespeare’s romances, and the plot is unusually convoluted. There’s a political thread (Britain is resisting a Roman demand for tribute), a family-betrayal thread (the princess’s wicked stepmother is trying to have both the princess and her would-be love interest murdered, and a sizeable number of other royal relatives have gone missing under assorted peculiar circumstances), and a more or less romantic thread (the princess escapes, disguises herself as a boy, and has a series of adventures before being reunited with her true love). And there is a good deal of side action bridging and framing the three major plots.
The present production more or less turns this into a briskly paced action yarn with liberal dashes of black comedy and soap-operatic melodrama. In a year where the Festival is also producing King Lear, this is arguably a good idea; there’s a lot of room to go very dark with Cymbeline, given what the script does to Imogen (the above-mentioned princess), but here we get something that owes more to Grimm and early Buffy the Vampire Slayer than it does to the television version of Game of Thrones. And I’m not making these references idly; the production introduces light but overt supernatural elements into the staging, and the set design combines with some very impressive lighting wizardry to give the production a decidedly mythic flavor.
The performances are uniformly good if rarely spectacular; my favorites in this show are Al Espinosa as Cloten, who plays his villain with cheerful vigor, Dawn Lyen-Gardner as Imogen, who wins points for not overplaying her heroine, and Jack Willis as Roman general Caius Lucius, who takes Imogen under his wing (while she’s disguised as the boy Fidele). Festival veteran Howie Seago gets the title role of Cymbeline, and the production does the Festival’s usual thoughtful and skillfully executed job of weaving Seago’s deafness into the fabric of the play.All in all, this is a very good production if not a deep one…but again, in a year where it’s in rotation with an intensely staged King Lear (which we’ll be seeing next), the choice to play Cymbeline for melodrama is a reasonable one. And as one of Shakespeare’s more rarely staged plays, it’s a show I can recommend catching if you visit Ashland this summer.