Quirky, Minimalist Theme Reimagines 'Cymbeline'
ASP production gives unpopular play new life
As the audience returns to their seats after intermission, seven actors in white bohemian attire—white linen pants, white shirts, and white sashes—race and push one another to take the six seats that comprise the orchestra, directly on the stage. The seventh, realizing he’s been left out, finally says “Act 4. Scene 1.” These quirky moments define the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s witty and fast-paced production of “Cymbeline.”
Known as one of Shakespeare’s most confusing plays, “Cymbeline” is a story of thwarted love, mistaken identities, and fairy-tale potions and kingdoms. Due to its convoluted plot, it is even rumored that Shakespeare wrote “Cymbeline” for his own amusement. Director Doug Lockwood’s minimalist theme, however, effectively tones down the complexities that make “Cymbeline” a difficult, rarely-produced romance.
“Cymbeline,” the first of three plays in the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s Winter Festival, runs until February 20. The performance takes place in The Storefront on Elm in Davis Square, a space previously occupied by vintage clothing store Poor Little Rich Girl. The company embraces the location, even transforming one of the dressing rooms into a barbaric cave in the middle of Wales. The all-white set is small and intimate, and is decorated by nothing but a few Persian rugs. Lockwood uses every trick in the book to simplify the play and get the audience to focus on the acting and experience what “Cymbeline” has to offer—and it works.
The production has a seven-person cast and almost 16 character changes—including one character, Cornelius, who is split between three actors—but the cast seem to alter personalities with ease. By simply moving his sash from his waist to his head, Posthumus (De’Lon Grant) morphs into both Cloten, the King’s irritating son, and Cornelius, the hilarious, accent-changing court physician. In this whirlwind of character changes, the plot is equally chaotic, taking the audience from Britain to Italy. King Cymbeline (Ken Baltin) imprisons his daughter Imogen (Brooke Hardman) for falling in love with Posthumus, who is himself banished to Italy. To make the story even more complex, Cymbeline has two kidnapped sons who have been raised in rural Wales by Belaria (Marya Lowry), the banished mistress of the King. Through a war between Italy and Britain, Posthumus seeks revenge for his banishment and attempts to reunite with Imogen.
The theater stays brightly-lit throughout the performance, illuminating the white set even further. At first, the effect is overwhelming, but when the cast enters with their white uniforms, the audience focuses on what truly matters: the acting. Lowry, who plays both the Queen and Belaria, is brilliant and subtle with well-timed sarcastic remarks and sexually empowering body language. Her seductive powers support an undeniable chemistry with the regal Baltin. Baltin himself, filling many roles, becomes Cymbeline as easily as he transitions into Cornelius, using a comedic cross between a Russian and Spanish accent to transform into the bold court doctor. Grant juxtaposes the masculine Posthumus with the flamboyant Cornelius with great energy and timing—he even uses instruments as weapons.
Lockwood’s simplistic approach fits well with the production’s unusual venue. Faint songs blaring from the bars in the neighborhood mix with the show’s makeshift music, consisting mostly of homemade instruments played by the actors themselves. The set does not have expensive light fixtures, smoke machines, or sound effects, but that is exactly the point—Lockwood’s aim is not to fool you. Rather, he asks the audience to take a journey with his ensemble, emphasizing storytelling above gimmickry.
In this case, the story is complex. While loose ends are still not tied at the end of the performance, Lockwood does Shakespeare justice with a quirky and unorthodox take on a story of love, malice, betrayal, and forgiveness.