“A Goodly Day Not to Keep House”
(Belarius, Act III, Scene III)
Cymbeline isn’t one of Shakespeare’s greatest hits. For some reason, it’s never managed to gain the fame or popularity of, say, good ole' Romeo and Juliet. In fact, the first person I invited to join me for the performance at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum pulled air slowly through her teeth and said, “Mmm... not one of my favorites.” Well, her loss. I could make this a very short review by simply telling you that this production is 100% sublime, and liberally blessed by Thespis’ magical theatre dust. My first time seeing the play (It’s one that’s performed less frequently), I’m at a loss for why it’s been rendered one of the canon’s awkward cousins. At least as presented by Theatricum, it’s satisfying and delightful.
Scholars will tell you that Cymbeline was the name of a real king, but that there’s little else in Shakespeare’s plot that’s historical. They’ll tell you that the Bard may or may not have drawn inspiration from a variety of sources, including mythology, legend and other plays, and that there’s been debate through the centuries about whether Cymbeline should be categorized as a comedy, a tragedy, a romance or a tragicomedy. But really... who cares? Yes, I said it. Do you want scholarship, or do you want to enjoy some tasty theatre?
If you choose the latter, leave your dusty library and come out to the woods of Topanga Canyon, where this loving production by this treasured company will make you smile, laugh and maybe tear up. Artistic Director Ellen Geer’s direction is magical. She meets Cymbeline’s challenges with a masterful hand, managing to unify the play’s far flung characters, disparate plot lines and turns of emotion into one terrific tapestry. Her casting is brilliant, as is her cast. So committed are these players to their characters’ stories that they succeed in that highest of theatrical goals: They make you leave the real world and enter theirs. Then, a few hours later, they gently set you back down on earth and send you on your way, having been treated to a great adventure.
Starring as Imogen, Willow Geer is simply as perfect as can be. Heartbreaking one moment, laugh-out-loud funny the next, irresistibly adorable the next, she’s consistently, unflinchingly honest throughout. Her utterly engaging performance in this demanding role defies superlatives. Mike Peebler is sweet and moving as her husband, the poor and tormented Posthumus. The couple’s ocean of love for each other is absolutely convincing, as is their innocence of a world where sometimes people do awful things just for sport.
The stunning performance by Gerald Rivers as Pisanio will make you glad you attended. There’s an elegance and depth to his characterization that makes this servant, in many ways, nobler than the lot of them. It’s a privilege to watch him. And his work opposite Ms. Geer is mesmerizing.
Jeff Wiesen as Cloten is so brilliant you feel like you’re just watching Cloten, rather than an actor playing a role. The character’s doltish ego and thick-headed bravado are so perfectly calibrated by this gifted comic actor that he is neither too broad nor too subtle, but right down the middle, like a bowling ball headed for a perfect strike. Wiesen makes hilarious choices that make you just want to smack the guy—for example, his Cloten seems to have decided that impressive people go about with one arm out in front of them, curved like a ballet dancer’s, as if perpetually posing for a portrait.
As Iachomo (alternating with Aaron Hendry in the role), Steve Matt was not quite up to the level of the rest of the cast, perhaps because he doesn’t appear in every performance. Though clearly a talented and entertaining actor, he is a bit clunky (particularly in the scene in Imogen’s bedchamber), fumbling several of his lines and seeming not to be in the same play as everyone else.
The rest of the principal cast is made up of standouts. Susan Angelo as the evil Queen is a smiling bitch: two-faced, cold hearted, ambitious and downright mean. The great simplicity in the work of veteran Shakespeareans Thad Geer in the title role, and Tim Halligan as Caius Lucius is evidence of flawless “chops.” They never goose the material; they simply land it beautifully and effectively. In two bits of cross-gender casting that work well, Earnestine Phillips, though sometimes difficult to understand vocally, is nonetheless vastly powerful, spiritual and enchanting as a mother-earth Belarius, while Samara Frame and Matt Ducati are wildly energetic and as her rough-and-tumble, secretly adopted charges, in love with their lives in the woods.
In the closing scene, during which, puzzle piece by puzzle piece, the truths come out, it’s a comedic treat to see Geer, Geer, Peebler, Rivers, Ducati, et al register shock, confusion and eventually relief as they process the convoluted equation before them.
Costumer Val Miller does a wonderful job of giving each of Cymbeline’s various worlds its own look. The family of banished forest dwellers appears to be wearing clothing cobbled together from available flora and fauna; in red, Lucius and his troops look like visiting foreigners against the muted tones of Cymbeline’s kingdom; the Queen’s flashiness suggests her Peron-like ambitions, and Imogen, in a gentle shade of light blue, looks befittingly angelic.
The set, as it always is at Theatricum, is sparse. Their wide wooden stage is framed by two structures that become various locations with the help of the occasional bit of set dressing. But there are no real sets; rather, the visible woods become bonus-playing areas as characters make their way into scenes—one of the theatre’s cooler features.
The fact that Cymbeline is performed less often than Shakespeare’s other plays is but one more reason to attend, and the fact that it runs through late September gives you more “goodly days” to leave your house and be enchanted in the woods.