If you didn’t know that William Shakespeare even wrote a play called Cymbeline, don’t feel bad. For one thing, the play is rarely produced these days (the last person on record as liking it was John Keats), and to add to the obscurity, it isn’t even really about Cymbeline (actually Cunobelinus, King of the Britons from 10 A.D. to 41 A.D., and thus a rough contemporary of Caesar Augustus). But if part of the tacit mission of The Montford Park Players is to perform all of the Bard’s works, then “Cymbeline” was bound to come round eventually; and it is perhaps no surprise that the woman who both originated and directed the current production is of the young, intrepid and idealistic variety. Charlotte Lawrence is, in other words, a recent graduate of Warren Wilson College. It would appear that many of her cast share her alma mater, and they and their fellows throw themselves into this production with the enthusiasm that makes Montford Park a memorable experience.
Audiences will notice that the playbill contains a scene-by-scene plot summary. Yes, Cymbeline is a strange and complicated play. Nor should it shock you to learn that Shakespeare, in accordance with his usual modus operandi, filched much of the plot from other sources, including Boccaccio’s Decameron, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, and a 1609 play by Beaumont and Fletcher, called Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding. Somehow these sources combine to tell the story of a beautiful and virtuous princess (Imogen, played by Lauren Kriel) who defies the will of her father the king (Cymbeline, played by Mike Vaniman) and marries a man of equally noble character but inferior station (Posthumus Leonatus, played by Mike Coghlan) instead of her stepmother’s (the Queen, played by Terry Darakjy) son (Cloten, played by Chris Stanton) from a previous marriage, who, while certainly villainous and revolting, is not nearly as villainous and revolting as this other guy (Iachamo, played by Bobby Bailey), a sort of Roman Casanova, who for his part makes a wager with the aforementioned Posthumous, whom he meets in Rome because, I forgot to tell you, he (Posthumous) has been banished there for having secretly married the aforementioned Imogen, the substance of which wager having to do with Imogen’s “honor” (read: chastity), and which (wager) Iachamo appears to win but really doesn’t, and somehow this leads to the discovery of Cymbeline’s long-lost and presumed-dead sons (Guiderius, played by Jason Williams, and Arviragus, played by Anthony Antinora) who have been living in a cave for about twenty years with this old huntsman guy (Belarius, played by David Mycoff), who is pretty darn eloquent for a huntsman living in a cave, and who turns out in fact to be…Well, you get the point. It’s actually a lot easier to follow than the plot of, say, Syriana. And plus, in the end everyone’s just as happy as can be, except for the Queen and her son, who are neither happy nor sad but dead.
And but here’s the thing. No one (least of all the scholars) seems to know what the heck genre this darn play actually belongs to. Some call it a tragedy, some a romance, others a “problem play,” whatever that is. Well, your correspondent is now going to tell you: It’s a parody, people. From the very first scene — an interminable and potentially hilarious exercise in “megaphoning” (i.e. exposition without the slightest hint of dramatic motivation) –– to the very last group hug and everything in between (the corny asides, the self-indulgent soliloquies, a deus-ex-machina, an epic showdown, some good old-fashioned cross-dressing, the interminable dénouement, etc., etc.) –– all of it is Shakespeare poking fun at the theatrical conventions of his time. And thank Jupiter some of the Montford cast get it. Watch Terry Darakjy as the Queen, Chris Stanton as the repugnant Cloten, Bobby Bailey as the yet-more-repugnant Iachamo, and above all, Ryan Madden as the smarmily ineffectual Cornelius. These actors are tuned in to the play’s essential campiness, and they embrace it wholeheartedly. If I had one criticism of the show as a whole, it would be that I wish the director had found a way to get everyone on board with this delightful artificiality. In many cases, all that would be required is a slight tweak of the acting, a shift in the actor’s orientation to his or her character and to the audience. The emblem of this style for me (this will sound a little weird) is the beheading that happens late in the play. This was one of the funniest things bits of staging I’ve seen in a long time, and what made it so hilarious was not its corniness per se, but the sense of complete commitment to its own corniness. It helped me realize that, done in the right spirit, Shakespeare could be obscenely funny.
Overall, Lawrence does an impressive job as director of keeping the plot in focus. She’s made judicious cuts to the script (though more would have been necessary — at 3 hours, the show is too long), and her staging keeps the action moving around the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre’s rather sprawling set. She’s made some fine casting decisions as well: I should mention Montford favorite David Mycoff, who does double duty as Philario and Belarius, and who handles the Shakespearean language masterfully. He’s a pleasure to hear, not just because of his resonant voice and the care he takes in articulating the words, but his clear grasp of their meaning. Even so, Shakespeare’s language can be difficult for modern audiences. I guess the thing to remember, with this play as with the Bard’s other works, is that there’s nothing to read between the lines. If the characters seem to talk a lot, it’s because there is no subtext: They express everything they think. It’s sort of the opposite of Hemingway, if that makes sense.
And one more bit of unsolicited advice: Show up at 6:30 p.m. (an hour early) and bring a picnic and some lawn chairs. The Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre is a lovely place to relax with a glass of wine before the show (and for that matter, during the show). Bug juice recommended as necessary.
Cymbeline: presented by The Montford Park Players. Directed by Charlotte Lawrence. Featuring: Ryan Madden, Jan Dixon, Terry Darakjy, Mike Coghlan, Lauren Kriel, Mike Vaniman, Joseph Barcia, Chris Stanton, Esha Grover, Bobby Bailey, David Mycoff, William Franklin, Karl Ehrsam, Jill Ehrsam, Jason Williams, Anthony Antinora, William Franklin, Matt Burke.
Cymbeline plays through July 25, Fridays through Sundays at 7:30pm (weather permitting), Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre, Montford Park, Asheville. Admission free, donations encouraged. Concessions for sale before the show and during intermission.