"Cymbeline" continues in repertory at Michigan Shakespeare Festival through Aug. 16. Photo: MSF

A Magical 'Cymbeline' In Kauzlaric's Hands

By Bridgette M. Redman

Sometimes you walk out of a theater and you know you've experienced something special. Something you're not likely to ever experience again.

On Sunday, I walked out of the Jackson Community College's Potter Center where the Michigan Shakespeare Festival was presenting "Cymbeline," with the realization that I may never again see this play done so well.

For starters, "Cymbeline" isn't done very often. It has a convoluted plot and lacks some of the poetry of Shakespeare's other works. It is neither comedy nor tragedy, and is one of his longer plays.

But director Robert Kauzlaric takes a strong hand to the script and molds it into a story that is compelling and fascinating. Then he works with a design team and a group of actors that couldn't be more committed to the group storytelling.

The production values are high, and what Jeromy Hopgood does with scrims and cloths and Diane Fairchild does with lighting is nothing short of amazing. Add to that the original music and sound design by Kate Hopgood that acts as a constant sound track, and the audience is transported out of this world into one of another time, place and setting. Al Renee Amidei's costumes along with Jeromy Hopgood's ever-moving set pieces make it possible for the play to move from Rome to England to Wales without ever losing the audience or leaving them behind.

It truly is teamwork amongst the production crew that makes things work. It isn't the costumes alone, the lighting alone, or the set pieces alone. All of them combine to tell the story, and it is their seamless integration as if done with one hand that makes the show magical.

The play opens with one of those rousing Shakespearean pictures with a large ensemble of people on stage, all moving in perfectly coordinated steps around a spotlighted chest. From the chest come costumes and masks in a choreographed dance. Then Joe Lehman mounts the box as chorus, narrator and Pisanio, servant to Posthumus to give the "once upon a time" in true Puck-like fashion.

Pisanio lets us know what has come before - that Imogen has eloped with Posthumus, an orphan raised in the court, and that King Cymbeline has banished Posthumus and imprisoned Imogen for this act. The King's two sons were kidnapped as babies, leaving Imogen as heir. The Queen (who has no other name) is an evil stepmother who wants her doltish son Cloten (by a previous marriage) to take the throne. Cloten and the Queen want Imogen to marry him to secure his right to the throne.

Lehman gives Pisanio a sprightliness that draws the audience in. He makes clear his loyalties, and we see in Pisanio one of the few characters who are constantly loyal and honorable, never being gulled by what seems to be, when what seems to be contradicts what he knows to be true. Lehman makes Pisanio a constant - that when things get confusing, it is always his opinion and view that can be trusted. As the story swirls around from place to place and plot to plot, Lehman ensures that things are understood and clear. He then returns as the Puck/narrator at the end of the play to let us know the moral, and give us Shakespeare's version of a "happily ever after."

Janet Haley is delicious as the evil stepmother and queen. She makes Disney's Maleficent seem cuddly and trustworthy. Haley moves in a sinister fashion, her hand growing in fearsomeness when she spreads her fingers and lays claim with it to the king, the throne, the world around her.

Rachel Hull's Imogen is powerful and intelligent. Hull gives the character a backbone that makes her one of Shakespeare's stronger women. She is faithful and can see through the schemes of others, even when they touch her dearly. The scene with her and David Blixt's Iachimo especially lets her shine. He tries to seduce her to win a bet with the banished Posthumus that he can compromise her honor. Hull lets her distress show at his news, and both build suspense so the audience is left to wonder whether she will give in.

Blixt creates an Iachimo that is casually evil. Unlike the Queen who is committed to her evil acts, Iachimo doesn't see himself as evil, merely as worldly. He does horrible harm for his own amusement, and does not think through what the consequences will be. It is this carelessness that sets up one of the more powerful moments at the end of the play, as Blixt leaves open the question of whether he is steeped in evil or whether it is possible for him to be redeemed.

The third bad guy of the play is Shawn Pfautsch's Cloten. Pfautsch creates a Cloten that the audience loves to hate. He is self-absorbed, arrogant, needy and vicious. He lacks all the virtues that Pfautsch gives Hamlet when he plays that role in the Festival's other production. Because of this, he becomes the clown of "Cymbeline."

David Turrentine plays the title role of the play, though he is often thrust into the background by those who take action around him. He is more acted upon than acting, influenced by his queen and ruled by his temper. He is the receiver of news rather than the maker of it.

Central to the play is the love story between Imogen and Posthumus. Hull and Edmund Alyn Jones could step right out of any fairy tale of a princess and a pauper. Their love for each other is deep, and the seeming betrayals leave them both devastated.

Shakespeare frequently shows in his plays that he believed it was birth - not upbringing - that makes a person noble. That blood is stronger than relations of choice, that nature trumps nurture. This we see in Sam Hubbard's Guiderius and Eric Eilersen's Arviragrus who are princely in a way that Cloten is not, even though they have been raised in a cave by Alan Ball's Belarius.

Blixt doubles as Iachimo and fight director in this production. Together, Kauzlaric and Blixt create scenes of war that are elegant, exciting and fit in perfectly with the mood and theme of the production.

While "Cymbeline" is often considered one of the Bard's lesser plays, this production is a pure Shakespeare experience. From costumes, to speeches, to movement, to stage fighting, to flawed heroes, to irredeemably evil villains, it has everything you expect from a Shakespeare play - and you leave wondering why it isn't done more often.

The answer might be because it can rarely be done quite so well.



Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Baughman Theatre at Potter Center on the campus of Jackson College

2111 Emmons Road, Jackson.

7:30 p.m. Aug. 2, 8, 14

2 p.m. Aug. 6, 16

2 hours, 47 minutes




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