Bardfest: ‘Cymbeline’ so much more than a princess-in-peril story

By Wendy Carson

I confess that I was entirely unaware of the story of “Cymbeline” prior to Indy Bardfest. Even though the script has been trimmed greatly, the three-hour running time and complexity of plot is daunting. However, Garfield Shakespeare Company director Anthony Johnson’s decision to place the setting in Civil War-era America helps the audience identify with the motivations behind many of the characters and the plight of their “kingdom.”

Fortunately, Guy Grubbs and Manny Casillas are perfectly engaging in the opening scene, providing the exposition needed to follow the story.

The plot revolves around Cymbeline (John Mortell), a “King” trying to keep the world on track with his ideals, and his daughter, Imogen (Elisabeth Speckman), who secretly married Posthumous (Chris Burton) against her father’s wishes. Cymbeline therefore banishes Posthumous and keeps Imogen a prisoner until he can find her a more suitable husband. Meanwhile, Imogen’s stepmother (Ashley Chase Elliott), only referred to as “Queen,” wants her arrogant son Cloten (Jarrett Yates) to be Imogen’s groom, cementing her power – especially once she dispatches Imogen & Cymbeline.

Posthumous meets a boisterous rake, Iachamo (Jake Peacock), who wagers he can bed the hero’s virtuous bride. But finding Posthumous correct in his assertions of Imogen’s devotion, Iachamo sneaks into the sleeping girl’s bedroom and uses what he finds to win the bet. This throws Posthumous into a state of such sadness that he sends word for his loyal servant, Pisanio (Sabrina Duprey), to kill Imogen.

Having been close to the princess, Pisanio refuses to obey the order and persuades Imogen to escape, disguised as a boy. But Cloten takes her disappearance personally and sets out to take her back. Then we meet local backwoods people, led by Morgan (Matt Anderson) – yes, they become important to the plot as well.

Another complication is that the Republic, represented by Caius Lucius (Abigail Johnson) wants its tribute from this little West-Virginia-esque kingdom so that Cymbeline can keep his throne. But the power-hungry Queen would rather have war.

Mortell does an excellent job of showing the king’s desperation as everything spins out of his control, while Elliott encompasses every Disney villain at their evil plotting best. Speaking of evil, Peacock’s Iachamo is perfectly slimy.

Speckman’s take on Imogene seems slightly stilted at first, but she deftly weaves experience and pure gumption into the role by the end. Burton as noble Posthumous is sheer passion and fire, no matter what mood he is in.

Duprey looks natural in Pisanio’s boots, an excellent supporting player. Anderson, for his part, barely reins in his charisma, channeling it to hint at how important he (a soldier in exile) and his two wards (secretly royal children, played smartly by Elysia Rohn and Tyler Marx) are to the story. Emily Bohn mixes well in dual roles as the bartender/host in Postumous’s exile and as the Queen’s slyly heroic court physician.

Shakespeare based this complex play – having elements of both the Tragedies and the Comedies – on the legend of an ancient king. While it’s not easy for us, in 2017 Indiana, to imagine life in Roman Britain (or to remember that England was even part of the Empire), we can easily conjure up the world of the 1860s, thanks to things such as “Gone With the Wind.” In fact, the play’s Queen comes across as a sort of unscrupulous Scarlett O’Hara. In an environment with the unspoken subtext of people as property, Imogene’s struggle for personal freedom takes on more importance.

Bardfest typically takes on a less-produced play, and once again polishes up a gem worth discovering. Remaining performances are Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 28-29, at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair. For more information, visit www.indyfringe.org.

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