If they set up a roller coaster on Boston Common, there would be no more twists and hairpin turns than there are in “Cymbeline,” this year’s free Commonwealth Shakespeare Company offering at the Parkman Bandstand (through Aug. 4). Shakespeare’s late-career romance suffers, as the critic Harold Bloom politely puts it, from “an excess of plot.”
The play, which careens among pre-Christian Britain, ancient Rome and the woods of Wales, is sometimes so far-fetched as to be laughable. It borrows bits and pieces not only from Holinshed’s “Chronicles” and Boccaccio’s “Decameron” but also from a dozen or so of the Bard’s own works including “King Lear,” “Othello” and “As You Like It.” And yet, in the princess Imogen, it boasts one of the loveliest, gutsiest heroines in all of Shakespeare. Not only does she deserve a better guy than the one to whom she rock-solidly plights her troth; she deserves a better play!
Frankly, I had thought “Cymbeline” an odd choice for the annual free Shakespeare on the Common, which may serve as an introduction to the Bard for many. What would they think? Would they require neck braces for the dramaturgical whiplash? But the theater piece that unfolds is not only action-packed but a great deal of fun. At both beginning and end, the cast informs us in song that theirs is an old tale at which we may laugh but insists that we take it as truth. Well, neither the eminent critic Samuel Johnson nor George Bernard Shaw was having it (in fact, both were vehemently not having it). But this “Cymbeline” — which director Fred Sullivan Jr. conceives as a sort of fairy tale, with all that genre’s grotesquerie — both makes, and slyly winks at, its case.
The innocent if hardly passive heroine’s travails are set in motion by a wicked stepmother and a less than perceptive dad (the Cymbeline of the title, based on a real person who ruled Britain in the first century). The nasty Queen wants Imogen to marry her bullying, doltish son, Cloten. But the princess has instead married Posthumus Leonatus, a commoner brought up in her father’s court. Infuriated by her agency, the king banishes Posthumus, who flees to what seems to be Renaissance Italy. There he meets an antic rogue called Iachimo, who claims to be quite the ladies’ man, and bets Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen. When Iachimo arrives in England and it becomes fiercely obvious that he will not succeed, he vows to win his wager by trickery. The weak-willed Posthumus is convinced and vows deadly revenge on his faithful wife.
From then on, things get dizzyingly nutty, the plot encompassing a sleeping potion that simulates death, the wronged heroine going in disguise as a boy, princelings stolen from the cradle and brought up in the forest, mistaken identity as the result of decapitation, the spectacular intrusion of the god Jupiter and the invasion of Britain by the forces of Augustus Caesar. (This last development proves particularly puzzling since here, the Brits seem to have one foot in primitive times, the other in an Edwardian England populated by chaps with croquet mallets and maids bustling in caps and aprons, whereas the Romans come in full armor and plumed helmets.)
Director Sullivan mostly goes with the tortuous flow, adding musical numbers and a broad physicality. He also injects a Monty Pythonesque whimsy into scenes whose violence (never have I witnessed a more laborious severing of head from torso) might otherwise seem not only ludicrous but also unsuitable for families basking on the Common.
Moreover, since Imogen is the best thing in the play, it seems apt that she is also the best thing in the production. The mightily tried princess is feistily played by Nora Eschenheimer, who, even when the character sickens and swoons or weeps bitter tears, leaves no doubt that Imogen is not to be tampered with. Assaulted by Iachimo, she greets his unwanted kiss with flapping arms and a mighty scream. Assaulted by Cloten, she pushes all the right buttons to spur a tantrum. And reunited, if unknowingly, with her roughhousing long-lost brothers, she meets them yelp for yelp and howl for howl.
Tony Estrella, artistic director of Rhode Island’s Gamm Theatre, is almost too impressive an actor for the blinkered Cymbeline — though Jeanine Kane makes a honey-voiced Lady Macbeth wannabe out of his scheming Queen. Kelby T. Akin brings lunkish bravado (and some clownishly jazzy serenading) to that preening ass, Cloten. And Jesse Hinson is all nonstop leaping, slinking and sexual entendre as Iachimo. As the easily deceived Posthumus, Imogen’s unworthy choice, Daniel Duque-Estrada delivers his vows sweetly and his rants angrily but can’t bring much charisma to a role that, as written, lacks it. As Posthumus’ loyal, anguished servant Pisanio, the excellent Remo Airaldi conjures more genuine feeling than his master or any of his character’s alleged betters do.
In so musical a production, one is grateful for strong-voiced Tom Gleadow as Belarius, the banished nobleman vamoosed to the forest with the stolen princes. And as these two, Jonathan Higginbotham and Michael Underhill roll around and tussle like bear cubs until they must take on the weight and pomp of their inheritance. Faced with the seeming demise of their new pal, the disguised Imogen, they and Belarius give tender voice to the only song in the play that is actually Shakespeare’s — the mordant encomium to the comforts of death, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun.”
Even with such aching touches, this “Cymbeline” is mostly a rambunctious race to what may be the longest and most convoluted reconciliation scene ever written — in which backstories are revealed, families are reunited, husbands and villains are repentant and dreams are interpreted by a convenient soothsayer who promises Britain “peace and plenty.” There isn’t much peace in “Cymbeline,” but there certainly is plenty, here served up as a Brothers Grimm feast with a thoroughly admirable hostess and a persistent whiff of fetidness at the bottom of the picnic basket.
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of “Cymbeline” continues on the Boston Common through Aug. 4.