Watching the intricate, improbable plot of William Shakespeare's "Cymbeline" unfold on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor Elizabethan Stage, you can imagine yourself transported back to early 17th century London, seated under the stars at the Globe Theatre. "Cymbeline" is pure, headlong entertainment — the Elizabethan equivalent of an action movie replete with special effects.
The play is a pastiche of history, romance and betrayal, told with classic fairy-tale elements of abducted young princes, evil stepmothers, mistaken identities, elaborate disguises, supernatural intervention and happy endings. Director Bill Rauch took all these story threads, mixed in some broad humor and then doubled down on it all with great glee, complete with deliciously sly visual references to Walt Disney's "Snow White," Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" and a bit of Fellini's "La Dolce Vita."
The story line of "Cymbeline" reads like it was concocted by an Elizabethan acting troupe sitting around one night with a couple of tankards, thinking up their next gig.
The British king, Cymbeline (Howie Seago), has a daughter, Imogen (Dawn-Lyen Gardner). When the king's wife died, he remarried a woman with the manipulative talents of Lucretia Borgia crossed with the ambition of Lady Macbeth. As the play opens, Imogen has married Posthumus (Daniel José Molina), a noble orphan raised at court. The Queen (Robin Goodrin Nordli) wants Imogen to marry her foppish son, Cloten (Al Espinosa), and contrives to have Posthumus banished.
Posthumus takes refuge in the Italian court and talks incessantly about Imogen's virtues. The arrogant Iachimo (Kenajuan Bentley) finally challenges him to a wager. Iachimo will travel to Britain, seduce Imogen and bring back proof. As Imogen is no easy mark, Iachimo resorts to a ruse to enter her bedroom while she is asleep, steal her bracelet and check her out for any identifying blemishes. He returns to Italy and convinces Posthumus that Imogen has been unfaithful. Posthumus does what any self-righteous Elizabethan cuckold would do — he writes to his servant Pisanio (Tony DeBruno), asking him to kill Imogen. Instead, Pisanio convinces Imogen to disguise herself as a boy, flee to woodsy Wales and join up with the attacking Roman army due to land there.
Imogen has some trouble finding the Romans. Tired and hungry, she finds a cozy cave and, as no one is home, takes shelter. The occupants of the cave — a rather rough-hewn father and his two grown sons — return and are delighted to find her. She is an adorable "boy" and would make a nice pet. But, of course, there is a back story here. The father is Belarius (Jeffrey King), former friend to Cymbeline who wrongfully banished him. (Cymbeline definitely has an anger management problem.) The boys (Raffi Barsoumian and Ray Fisher) are actually the king's sons, kidnapped by Belarius out of spite when he abruptly left town.
The rejected Cloten, meanwhile, sets off to Wales to find Postumus and ravish Imogen.
Of course, the good guys win and the bad guys die, in true Shakespearean fashion.
Rauch emphasizes these clashing "worlds" with deliberate anachronisms, fanciful costumes and broad characterizations. The banished Belarius and the sons all speak with a Welsh accent. The effete Italian court uses an exaggerated Italian accent and Italian phrases. The Roman soldiers are garbed as ancient Romans. And all the courtiers — British, Roman, Italian — seem to be of a different species altogether, with pointed ears and horns jutting out of their skulls.
Michael Ganio provided an inventive set for all this (the set serves for all three plays on the Elizabethan Stage this summer), incorporating the existing superstructure, façade and columns. His palace scenes have additional columns placed askew, bedchambers receding into the inner stage and thrones and banners on the second level. When the action moves to the Welsh forest, those additional columns become tree trunks, the inner stage becomes a forest glen with a cave and breathtaking video projections (by Alexander V. Nichols) turn the entire theatre into a lush and leafy woodland.
If there is any fault with this production of "Cymbeline," it is that director Rauch, with his additions to the action of onstage ghosts and several elaborate deus ex machinas, kept this fairy tale going on a bit too long. The audience was getting a bit restless toward the end of the evening. Three-plus hours is an awfully long time to wait for "happily ever after," even if you can take your tankards into the theatre.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.