Chicago Theater Review: SHAKESPEARE’S CYMBELINE: A FOLK TALE WITH MUSIC (First Folio)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 23, 2013

in Theater-Chicago

A LONG HIKE IN THE THEM THAR HILLS OF SHAKESPEARE

Along with its companion piece The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s late-blooming “romance” Cymbeline is usually treated as a fairy tale. Rightly so, as it abounds in surprises, reversals and restorations.  Minus any realistic causation and motivation, their pell-mell plots are packed with improbable events — inexplicable evil, narrow Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of SHAKESPEARE’S CYMBELINE: A FOLK TALE WITH MUSIC (First Folio in Oak Brook)escapes, virtue threatened but finally vindicated, and families split, then reunited in reconciliation.

But First Folio Theatre’s new musical adaptation of Cymbeline (by executive director David Rice with a countrified score by composer Michael Keefe and lyricist Rice) treats the tragicomedy as a folk tale, not a fairy tale. Set 150 years ago in the back hills (are there front ones?) of newly created West Virginia, the title character is an improbable king within America. Ruling a rural realm, Cymbeline, now ante-bellum rather than post-Roman, resents paying taxes to the North. (Sound familiar?) He’s joined the rebels in overthrowing Honest Abe. (There’s a bit of Game of Thrones thrown in here as well). Providing a folksy framework, set designer Angela Weber Miller has built a big old country cabin to stand for the settings. Rachel Lambert’s costumes are quaint as a quilt.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of SHAKESPEARE’S CYMBELINE: A FOLK TALE WITH MUSIC (First Folio in Oak Brook)The plot remains intact in 1863: Cymbeline’s much wronged daughter Imogen (sweetly sad Kate McDermott) is forced into exile, though innocent as the dawn. Imogen’s wicked stepmother (the elegantly witch-like Lia Mortensen) wants the much-persecuted princess to marry her feckless brat Clothen (ever-clowning Andrew Behling). She induces rascally Iachimo (James Earl Jones II, a black villain in a white cast) to undermine their bursting love. A poor man’s Iago, the devious scalawag tricks Imogen’s otherwise ardent lover Leonatus Posthumus (energetic Matthew Keffer), with whom he made a bet that he could seduce his intended, into believing that, yes, Imogen has been unfaithful. (Not so, not so!)

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of SHAKESPEARE’S CYMBELINE: A FOLK TALE WITH MUSIC (First Folio in Oak Brook)Imogen flees to the hills and hollows of a new state where she meets her disguised brothers (Ryan Czerwonko and Tyler Rich), previously stolen away from Cymbeline’s city by the unfairly maligned courtier Morgan (Ronald Keaton, our foxy/folksy narrator). Posthumus seeks out Imogen for revenge rather than love. But he gets caught up in the Union Army’s attempts to keep West Virginia in the Union and to make Cymbeline a loyal liege lord yet again. All is made right when Cloten loses his head (to follow his mind) and the father is reunited with his falsely separated children.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of SHAKESPEARE’S CYMBELINE: A FOLK TALE WITH MUSIC (First Folio in Oak Brook)Unfortunately, despite a downhome-decent folk-music score that yields solid, homespun ballads and rousers along with the Bard’s famous “dirge,” it’s harder to see Cymbeline as a folk rather than a fairy tale. For one thing, that requires making the estranged lovers central to the story. But in Goldberg’s staging we never taste their frustrated passion or cheer for their reunion. The feelings at stake — and they can be pretty powerful as revealed in both of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s celebrated revivals of Cymbeline — seem lost in the action and subordinated to the score. What results is more a hillbilly hootenanny than a fairy tale’s wishful-feeling where make-believe gets spun into gold.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of SHAKESPEARE’S CYMBELINE: A FOLK TALE WITH MUSIC (First Folio in Oak Brook)Plus at nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes, First Folio’s sprawling, open-air Cymbeline is way, way too long. To add these songs, the script, which teems with excisable flights of superstition, should have been trimmed more. Diverting as these ditties prove, they mostly postpone rather than celebrate the plot’s twists and turns.

Another problem is the Appalachian accents: It’s hard to take them seriously. We Yankees think of Gomer Pyle, L’il Abner, Tobacco Road, Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw before we ever think of Shakespeare. (The same affliction belabored Oak Park Festival’s Ozark-set Romeo and Juliet a few seasons ago.) To overcome the stereotypical drawls and twang, the lines would have to be spoken much more slowly and lyrically — but this furiously-paced and already overlong folk tale permits no such luxuries.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of SHAKESPEARE’S CYMBELINE: A FOLK TALE WITH MUSIC (First Folio in Oak Brook)

photos by D. Rice

Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: A Folk Tale with Music
First Folio Theatre
Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook
part of the “Shakespeare Under the Stars” series
scheduled to end on July 21, 2013
for tickets, call 630.986.8067 or visit http://www.firstfolio.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

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