Plucky, rebellious heroine?
Cymbeline has the all the earmarks of a classic fairy tale, with a few extra twists and quirky characters for good measure. Imogen, the daughter of King Cymbeline, secretly marries the poor, but good, Posthumus. Enraged, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus. Imogen disguises herself as a boy to meet Posthumus, and along the way manages to discover her two brothers stolen from the cradle. To say wackiness ensues is quite the understatement.
With subplots galore and lots of characters to keep track of, Cymbeline isn't the easiest play to stage, but the Chicago Shakespeare Theater has a cast that can pull it off. Chaon Cross is well up to the task of carrying the show on Imogen's shoulders. Cross is a great comedienne, finding the humor in lines that most actresses would simply play straight. She also handles the transition to grief not only adeptly (something not always easy to do in a comedic play), but with great believability. If the audience didn't know that it wasn't Posthumus' body Imogen weeps over, they would no doubt be a little choked up themselves. She's particularly enjoyable when trying to play a boy among men; when she draws a sword she looks like a newborn colt learning to stand.
From the beginning, Iachimo has "villain" written all over him. And boy, does Juan Chioran do everything (and then some) to live up to the characterization. After this performance, few things will be considered creepier (or funnier) than an oily-chested man in leather pants slinking out of a trunk.
The real scene stealer, though, is Brian Sills' Cloten, whose every line and movement is over the top with the panache of a man who doesn't have any idea how ridiculous he is—a Shakespearean Jack McFarlane. Cloten is a villain with a despicable plan, but even so, Sills is such a fantastic character you almost wish Cloten to be successful, just because you don't want to see him go.
The sets are minimal, which is understandable given the number of places in which the play is set. Even so, the show utilizes a series of moving panels for different doorways and different locations. What could have been an ornate palace or wilderness, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater manages to create the same thing with only textured black walls.
The costumes, however, contribute a great deal to setting a scene without sets, as well as aiding the separation of the characters. Posthumus' simple clothing and earthy colors are greatly contrasted by Prince Cloten's much fancier, frillier and slightly metrosexual garb. The lost princes, Arviragus and Guiderius, and their adopted father, Belarius, are out of place in their animal skins when met with any other character. The Queen is ornately and impeccably dressed, making the appearance of her descent into madness following her son's death all the more shocking. The costumes cover a broad spectrum of class and style, and even the simplest looks (lots of long-sleeved T-shirts) work well and show tremendous thought. What the sets cannot say, the costumes deliver.
Director Barbara Gaines makes a great choice during the climactic battle sequence between the Britons and the Romans. Rather than having all characters wield swords and directing a realistic sequence, actors fight with the yellow and purple flags of each country. Purple flags surround King Cymbeline, only to be ripped off to reveal yellow standards when the battle turns in favor of the Britons. It's easier to follow than a chaotic melee with dozens of actors, and artistically it's magnificent. The symbolism works better than a literal interpretation, though there are a few realistically staged fights between choice characters, as well.
And though it might seem like you need a flow chart to keep track of the converging plot lines and resolutions in the final scene, Gaines handles the blocking admirably. Nearly the entire cast is on stage (here the lack of ornate sets works to the play's advantage), and almost all of them have mysteries to address. The action is spread out across the stage, and also into audience. Best of all, if you let your eye wander from the central actors to some of the onlookers, there is often as much stage business and facial expressions to keep you giggling.