CEDAR CITY — For their 60th anniversary season, The Utah Shakespeare Festival has dusted off one of Shakespeare’s least produced titles: Cymbeline. Don’t let the lack of name recognition sway you from expecting a story worth retelling. If you are familiar with Shakespeare you will find everything you crave and more. Name a Shakespearean plot device, and this play has it. Forbidden love? Check? A poisonous queen? Check. Siblings separated at birth? A woman disguised as a boy? A war with foreign invaders? A foolish king, clever servant, and jewelry wagered against a woman’s virtue? Check all those boxes. Even a dead mom and a ghost dad! Cymbeline truly has it all. Shakespeare always seemed to believe that when it comes to plot, more is simply MORE, and if an audience loved a trope once they will certainly love it even more the next time around. Like any popular artist releases mid-career, Cymbeline is a sort of “Greatest Hits” album for the Bard.
I won’t waste words going into the details of the madcap plot for you, as the unfolding is a pleasure to watch. (Just hold on to your seat and perhaps know that Milford-Haven is a port town in Wales.) With so much plot to pack in and only eight actors to cover the multitude of roles, director Britannia Howe keeps a sharp focus on storytelling. She packs it all in to a set of trunks arranged and rearranged before the audience’s eyes. Props, costumes, trunks and actors are in constant motion as they roll from scene to scene. However, the device is a bit thin in the opening and closing moments of the show, where an additional layer of performance is added. The actors wander onto stage as themselves, more or less, wielding coffee cups, cell phones, and backpacks. The audience watches as the actors assume their roles, donning what they find in the trunks. While this does the necessary job of making space for the suspension of disbelief, it left me confused as to who these actors were supposed to be. Is this a rehearsal this particular play with these particular actors? Is this a group of traveling performers? Are they modern representations of these many ancient tropes? But perhaps I am overthinking. The actors’ banter is charming and the audience ate it up, even if it left me with more questions than answers.
The production’s restraints make for moments of brilliance, but also shines some light on its struggles. This cast had a lot to do, and for the most part they make it look easy. Each performer is individually excellent and together they are a delight to watch. Noteworthy in the small cast are standouts Yao Dogbe who plays both the young lover Posthumus and his own buffoonish rival, Prince Cloten. So dissimilar are these two portrayals that I was unable to fully convince myself they were in fact the same actor until I could check the playbill. Likewise, Josh Innerst as the Italian rake Iachimo is far removed from his lost prince Guiderius. Jeremy Thompson takes on each of his three distinct roles with aplomb, but not without a lot of sweat by the final scene as reveal upon reveal makes for a number of hasty exits and entrances. To that end, it may have been more advantageous to lean even deeper on theatricality and have more costume changes happen in direct view of the audience. This might have given the actors more time to breathe and also more time for them to play with the audience, which is their talent and our joy.
The cast’s grand effort on stage is aided by the lovely and practical costume design of David Kay Mickelsen, and ever-outstanding sound and lights by Joe Payne and Donna Ruzika respectively. Stephen Jones‘s scenic design is equally simple and elegant. I have now seen a number of arrangements of the Festival’s new studio theater space, and this proscenium thrust arrangement, with audience on three sides, is my favorite yet. There is both intimacy and enough space for the imagination to range across the wide world of locations we are called to.
It is to Howe’s credit that the production elements are seamlessly unified for clear and upbeat storytelling. For the Shakespeare connoisseur, Cymbeline is chock full pleasant reminders of what you love about his work, and for everyone there are enough twists and turns to keep things interesting.