A potion that feigns death. Cross dressing. Mistaken identities. A manipulative queen bent on murder. A woman imprisoned. Kidnapped princes. Tests of fidelity. A jealous rage headed to a beloved wife's death. War.
All that and more in just a single play. It's no wonder that TheatreWorks' production of "Cymbeline" ran close to three hours.
A late and lesser-known work by Shakespeare, "Cymbeline" is a kitchen-sink concoction of plot mechanisms, characters and scenarios, many familiar from his more successful works. It runs through Aug. 24 at the pastoral Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site.
To mount a production of this scope that also engages for the entire running time is a challenge to say the least. In fact, the play, wrote New York Times critic Ben Brantley in a 2011 review, has "thwarted many an illustrious director."
Still, TheatreWorks director Murray Ross and his modest cast cull quite a lot of fun from this Rubik's Cube of a play - especially in Act I. The acting is uniformly good and Ross peppers the action with outsized treats, including a male actor playing the devious queen with the delicious flair of a Disney villainess.
Act II maintains those elements, but, ultimately, can't support the weight of Shakespeare's promiscuous storytelling.
So, you have to wonder, is it worth seeing? The first act, absolutely. I'd easily give it a A-. But the second half hits a solid C-. Put it together and that last 45 minutes isn't something I'd like to repeat.
So what, you might wonder, is "Cymbeline" about? Way too much to be adequately described here. Suffice it to say that it starts in ancient Britain with the dramas of star-crossed lovers Imogen and Posthumous and ends with every schism bridged and all the players practically best friends.
For all the demands of this play, Ross' cast - many playing multiple roles - brought real life (or bigger-than-life) to their characters. Perhaps most important, though, almost every actor had clearly mastered the meaning of the dialogue and delivered nearly every word with clarity and understanding. That's a welcome change from past TheatreWorks summer productions, in which only the leads had that kind of firm grasp. I hope that's a sign of the work to come.
Shakespeare's major female characters often fall into two categories: innocents or villains. Granted, New York actor Susan Maris, who plays the angelic Imogen, is all pouty lamentation and giddy love for much of Act I. But as the play progresses, she wrings every last bit of dimensionality from this princess turned warrior. And when the noise of the rain on the tent threatened to deafen the crowd, Maris gamely soldiered on. (Happily, a short rain delay was called and the scene restarted when it was quiet again.)
As Posthumous-Cloten, Nick Henderson drew a clear line between the two, giving his Cloten, a vainglorious bumbler determined to marry Imogen, a little Elvis bravado to drive the point home. His Posthumous is less showy - a thoughtful, earnest man who doesn't always act with the strength of his convictions.
Anthony Michael Martinez, another touring actor, drew boos for his villainy as the evil queen and Iachimo, a Roman bent on seducing Imogen to win a fat bet. As the queen, he owned the stage, sweeping in and out like a bad wind. His over-the-top portrayal, which included an evil laugh that strayed into parody, was funny: The audience loved him from beginning to end.
Dressed impeccably in a modern suit with an 18th-century touch (one of the most successfully costumes by Roselaine Fox), his Iachimo slithers, primps and finagles his way to remorse at the hands of King Cymbeline (played by the terrific Randy Moore, another experienced Shakespearean actor from out of town).
Another standout: Joe Discher, who played Pisanio, Posthumous' servant, and Caius, the Roman general sent to Britain to extract belated tributes to Caesar Augustus. Associate artistic director of Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Discher, who also directed TheatreWorks' terrific production of "Red," brings considerable knowledge of The Bard to bear and it showed. I particularly like his Pisanio, into whom he injected kindness, deference and a good heart.
Eric and Karl Brevik, too, brought their characters to life, especially as mountain men in hiding with their father-kidnapper Philario (Tom Paradise, in good form). Unbeknownst to them, they are Cymbeline's sons. It's probably Karl's best performance to date.
In all that good, one note didn't ring true. In one of the final scenes, Jupiter (Mel Grier, a reoccurring local player in TheatreWorks' Shakespeare productions) reassures the worried ghosts that the sleeping Posthumous will indeed triumph. Before he reaches the stage, though, a deep rumbling exploded outside the tent. Annoying, I thought. Then, Jupiter enters in an unexpected manner. It was a surprise, certainly, and funny, but it seemed out of proportion at that point in the play, especially for a minor character who makes one quick entrance and exit.
Finally, as I sat through the second act, I wondered, would it have been verbotten to cut a few scenes that don't advance the plot? Directors do sometimes trim Shakespeare. Perhaps, though, even minimal snips send us down a slippery aesthetic slope.
I certainly would be uncomfortable hearing that a play had been cut, whatever the reason. And maybe Shakespeare, of all playwrights, is and should be sacrosanct. But what about the audience's exeperience? Where does their sacrifice of time and money fall in the mix?
What do you think? Share your thoughts with me at email@example.com for a possible follow-up to this review.
What: TheatreWorks' Shakespeare Festival
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Murray Ross
Cast: Randy Moore, Susan Maris, Anthony Michael Martinez, Tom Paradise, Nick Henderson, Joe Discher, Karl Brevik, Erik Brevik
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, through Aug. 24
Where: Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site, 3105 Gateway Road
Tickets: $35, $15 ages 15 and younger, free for University of Colorado at Colorado Springs students, $25 groups of 10 or more. No kids 4 and younger. Reservations strongly suggested; 255-3232, theatre workscs.org
Something else: The cast will perform pre-show contemporary music beginning at 6:45 p.m.
Another thing: Read a synopsis of "Cymbeline" at http:/en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cymbeline