The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater’s Classical Acting Academy, an immersive eight-week program for rising young actors to learn classical acting techniques and performances, presents as the culmination of their summer’s study Cymbeline. It’s an ambitious project with a curious play, small cast, stripped-down set, and original music — and they absolutely nail it for a fun and fantastic production.
The heart of the production is the lively and talented cast: they do their own stunts, they play their own tunes, and they certainly don’t sound like beginners at Shakespeare. Their delivery is not only confident but enthusiastic, moving briskly through the byzantine plot. One of Cymbeline’s quirks is that the title character often seems almost periphery to the action of the play; Sam Sherburne as Cymbeline, however, makes a game attempt to reclaim that lost ground, delivering an enjoyably over-the-top performance that continues even when he’s offstage, where he periodically comments on the onstage shenanigans by releasing bellows probably audible all the way in Milford-Haven. Marisa Lerman and Brooks Russell, playing the protagonists Imogen and Posthumus Leonatus, maintain this energy with their own passionate performances: Lerman gives Cymbeline’s daughter his high spirits and temper, while Russell imbues Cymbeline’s ward with his impulsiveness and rage. This central storm of emotion is balanced by the rest of the cast, usually in multiple roles — Kevin Rodden, for example, as the suave Iachimo and pensive Belarius, or Hannah Van Sciver as the scheming queen and bluffly amusingly Polydore — working double-time to provide the needed mix of earnestness and excellent comic timing to sail through the play’s most outrageous extremes.
The highly energetic cast excuses — or perhaps justifies — the bare-bones set, which consists solely of the thrust stage, a cyclorama, the players’ musical instruments, and Iachimo’s trunk, which also serves as a prop repository and convenient footrest for Isaiah Ellis’s Cloten whenever he needs to strike a manly pose. Its simplicity keeps the focus on the actors, who make it clear the set is an intentional informality (and who capitalize on it by coming out and chatting with the audience before the play and during intermission).
The costume design by Violette Carb works on a similar principle: basic modern dress mixed with more period pieces when needed, which seek to capture the essence of each character as simply as possible. Marisa Lerman wears a white day dress and circlet when Imogen appears as a princess, then jeans and a shapeless tunic when she dresses as a boy; Hannah Van Sciver wears all black, with sassy red heels as the Queen and sensible leather boots and a poncho as Polydore; the men wear business casual augmented as needed by weapons, caps, or capes. The effect verges on the workmanlike, but it gets the point across and then gets out of the way.
The direction by David O’Connor is probably the most successful realization of this minimalist style. Many artistic decisions that in other productions would be made the focus of any given scene here appear almost entirely natural. The actors rarely leave the stage completely, either sticking around to fulfill ensemble roles or provide musical accompaniment (or both), or embodying the object of another character’s reflections. Dead (or allegedly dead) characters are represented by empty suits of clothes, which thematically complements Imogen’s confusion of Posthumus with a decapitated Cloten in Posthumus’ clothing. It also neatly does away with the difficulty of providing a headless corpse, and sets a precedent for silent characters to be replaced by a token garment when their actors are needed elsewhere on the stage (an especially handy trick for the final scenes of the play).
One of the highlights of the production is the music, composed and arranged (and often played) by cast member and sound designer Patrick Lamborn (Cadwal). While there is generally at least one actor on stage performing, the music never overwhelms the play; it smoothly transitions from background accompaniment to battle music to Cloten’s personal minstrel troupe to a cappella showcase as needed.
Less obvious but no less critical to the production’s success is the textual editing. O’Connor does a tremendous job of condensing an almost over-complicated plot and large cast into a streamlined arrangement for eight, all while maintaining essential plot twists and characters. Less important roles and subplots are dropped, and exposition is jettisoned in favor of the revelations already present in the final act. O’Connor also combines scenes to great effect: Posthumus’ bitter soliloquy on the unfaithfulness of women from 2.5 is interspersed with 3.4, his ranting apparition reflecting the mental strain Pisanio is under, while gaining an instant counterpoint when Imogen delivers her own speech on the perfidy of men after she discovers Posthumus’ allegations. However, one plot point is perhaps too overzealously edited: nearly all references to the character of Caius Lucius and the political maneuvering with Rome in the first half of the play are omitted, which makes the sudden appearance of a Roman in Imogen’s tomb and the subsequent war in Act V rather baffling. The negotiation scene from 3.1 is sorely missed, not only because it sets up the plot of the second half of the play, but also because Cymbeline, the Queen, and Cloten lose the most stage time due to the editing, and it seems a shame to leave out one of their key scenes.
This is, however, a minor misstep in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable production. This Cymbeline delivers a success for the Classical Acting Academy and the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater, and a new crop of Shakespearean actors to watch.