A black background, exposed brick walls, four benches on stage, and some suggestions as props serve the six-person ensemble of Folding Chair Classical Theatre to present Cymbeline, a lengthy play with many characters and specific location changes. With no elaborate sets, costumes, or designs, no interpretive theme or superimposed quality, the actors and the play are the focus of this production.
As Pisanio, Ian Gould (also as Jachimo) is steady, loyal, and admirable in his constant service to his master and mistress, but unfortunately, Gould never fully owns his Jachimo. His accent roams far and wide across Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Italy, and Ireland, criss-crossing the continents again and again. Gould’s body lacks confidence and suavity, most obvious in his awkward success after peeking at Imogen’s mole, in unstraddling her while trying not to kick her in the face with his heavy boots. Jachimo played well is a physically, sneaky, sleazy, two-faced Italian womanizer, or else he will lose his three-dimensionality.
The brutish Cloten (Josh Thelin, also as the Frenchman, Cornelius, and Jupiter) is not known for his subtlety or his rationale, considering he wants to rape and humiliate the crown princess Imogen—his mother’s enemy to power—because she loves another. Thelin nails the arrogant tone and scorn for others excellently, but could have gone further with his fake wooing and wounded pride, both fiery rage and pulsing vengeful embers. Surprisingly, the Queen (Karen Ogle, also as Arviragus/Cadwal) is almost sincere at the beginning, making her true intentions that much more treacherous. She is intimidating in voice but lacks noble physicality, wearing slacks and chooses awkward and unladylike poses and gestures. This costuming is more forgivable in favor of the show’s double- and triple-casting, but it is still a little shocking to see the highest-ranking lady in the play in casual brown pants. Cloten’s already conceited posturing of nobility is heightened by his mother’s inconsistency of it, but she undercuts him at one point by turning him over her knee and spanking him. This startling regression and lack of social decorum gets laughs, but the recovery beat after the gimmick downshifts awkwardly. What do you say after you have seen the son-in-law to the king of Britain disciplined like a peasant schoolboy?
Cymbeline (Gowan Campbell, also as Belarius/Morgan) starts off with a fearsome bearish bark that slacks as the play progresses. In the negotiations with the ambassador from Rome, all can acknowledge that Cloten is a boorish prick, but Cymbeline seems too content, almost calm, in accepting Caius Lucius’s declaration of war. Self-described as a “war-like people,” the warriors of Britain have hardly any bite at all led by Campbell’s Cymbeline. Though his martial character seems lacking, his paternal anxiety over Imogen is genuine and increasing when she flees at first chance, but it overshadows his responsibility to Britain.
Lisa Blankenship as Imogen is the only member of the ensemble to not be double-cast in two major roles. In turn independently strong and sentimentally vulnerable, Blankenship’s mature Imogen captures the woman that her secret marriage to Posthumus has made her, with very little to hint at the young girl who came before. Bordering on sarcastically bitter, her dialogue with Cloten snaps peevishly, reveling in its own satisfying rejection. Her musings on Posthumus, the only times she has to detail her love for him, are sometimes rushed, given that the words are so specific: “I would have broke mine eye-strings, cracked them, but / To look upon him till the diminution / Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle.” (Act 1, Scene 3, 17-19) When they are together and as their love grows over geographical distance, we are convinced by acts of love, not meditations on it.
Posthumus is a prince in everything but name and knows the peril in carrying great emotional weight and expectations from others. In the company of others, Paul Edward Hope (Posthumus, also as Guiderius/Polydore) becomes stiff, jumping too quickly for emotion without letting it build naturally. Thankfully, the initial rigidity does not hold fast to Hope’s performance; when he is onstage for his soliloquies in the end of Act 2 and the beginning of Act 5, he pulls every sweet nuance from the verse, leaving the audience to pick up their heartstrings. Tortured repeatedly by deception, fate, and his own willingness to believe the worst and later regret the consequences, Posthumus bares his raw insides to us, and all we can do is hold our breaths that Shakespeare chooses to make a romance, not an irreversible tragedy. Hope’s performance only grows stronger, even as he switches between Guiderius/Polydore and Posthumus.
The double casting, despite its strain on some actors, reveals strong relationships between the court and the outside worlds of Italy and Welsh country life. The scenes between Imogen and Pisanio are darkly shaded by his other incarnation as Jachimo, but Polydore beheading Cloten seems perfectly natural as the actor also plays Posthumus, who shares Polydore’s disgust of Cloten. The most perfect match is between Cymbeline and Belarius, playing father to his real sons and daughter at all times in the play. Though the revelation of Belarius takes some maneuvering with blocking, it is most visually appropriate that the actor who plays Cymbeline tends to Imogen as Fidele and raises her Lost Boy brothers. These facets of the subtext are the core of Folding Chair; the minimal production makes the story central instead of the effort in making performance. The ensemble pares down costumes, sets, and gimmicks for the essentials, and some of the artistic choices are hard to assimilate with this mission, but the driving force is always the play’s directive: to uncover what is false to find truth.