Imogen– where have you been all my life?! I have only seen Shakespeare’s CYMBELINE once before (March ’92 at the Huntington Theatre) but I don’t recall its heroine as vividly as I will remember this boisterous and boundlessly energized performance by Nora Eschenheimer as Princess Imogen, a young woman as honest, loyal, and determined as the men around her are duplicitous, foolhardy, and misguided. The 24th season of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s FREE SHAKESPEARE ON THE COMMON is an exhilarating delight!
The play begins with a recipe for disaster. King Cymbeline (Tony Estrella) newly married to a treacherous queen (Jeanine Kane) thus demonstrating his ineptitude as a judge of character, banishes his daughter Imogen’s new and honorable but lowborn husband Posthumus Leonatus (Daniel Duque-Estrada) as being unsuitable in favor of his second wife’s oafish offspring Cloten (a very funny Kelby T. Akin). Meanwhile, the banished Leonatus makes a bet with a conniving lothario, Iachimo (Jesse Hinson who acts every square inch of the part, and then some) to test his wife’s loyalty (never a good idea).
Neither comedy nor tragedy, the rarely performed CYMBELINE is among the Bard’s last plays, a romance, and an odd hybrid with elements comedic, tragic, and mystical, in which the playwright has gathered up the plot twists, devices and themes of his oeuvre and is making a new kind of sense of it all. There are unmistakeable bits of the tragedies with their ghosts and battles, jealousy and love, of “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Othello,”as well as every comedy that involves disguised and mistaken identities, separated siblings, parents and children at odds, wicked wives, wayward suitors, and woodland high jinks. Sometimes these strands play unexpectedly next to each other–a headless corpse beside a fair young maiden for example–underscoring that porous line between comedy and tragedy. Ultimately Shakespeare unites these elements within a benevolent cosmos, where things aren’t always as bad as they seem, mistakes are redeemable, and dreams complete the truth of waking life.
Director Fred Sullivan Jr. has conceived a broadly interpreted production to encompass these disparate parts, and sets in motion a terrific company of actors, especially the aforementioned Nora Eschenheimer who put me in mind of a rambunctious Emma Stone. He’s cooked up some amusing business involving the wild and wooly long lost sons of Cymbeline played by the musclebound duo of Jonathan Higginbotham and Michael Underhill, who are mightily attracted to Fidele (Imogen disguised as a boy, and Shakespeare still playing around with sexuality and gender roles). The whole production culminates in a spectacular appearance by a winged god as the crowd gasped and applauded.
Is this akin to what the groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe felt? As I looked up at the stage from my seat on the grass seeing a play by William Shakespeare almost for the first time, I wondered. I was enthralled and entertained, and this spectacle while somehow blunter and less poetic than many of Shakespeare’s works, worked for me as I sat on the common ground amidst the starry-eyed throngs on a summer night. See CYMBELINE for FREE on the common until August 4!