Updated: Sep 29, 2021
Though William Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline takes its name from a British king, it really centers on his daughter, Imogen. In the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s dynamic production—on stage through the festival’s Oct. 9 closing—Imogen is a fresh, relatable young woman finding her way in a world circumscribed by her elders and her gender.
Director Britannia Howe makes excellent use of the intimate Anes Studio Theatre on the Southern Utah University campus in Cedar City, in which there is no bad seat in the house.
The set, designed by Stephen Jones, is simple, consisting mostly of luggage of various sizes ingeniously arranged and rearranged, becoming Imogen’s bed in a key scene.
Costumes by David Kay Mickelsen are similarly effective, mostly tunics and trousers in natural textiles with intricate patterns, yet cut in a modern way, allowing the actors to move freely and actively about the stage. And original music, composed by Joe Payne, is ethereal and transporting from beginning to end.
Before the play formally begins, the actors enter the stage as if they just walked in off the street, limbering up and asking the audience what they’re doing there. One by one, they exchange their modern accoutrements for costumes in the luggage pieces. This informal breaking of the ‘fourth wall’ works well in the small stage surrounded on three sides by audience members.
And then it’s nonstop action with the very engaging and diverse cast speaking Shakespeare’s language in today’s cadences. Under Howe’s direction, with voice and text coaching by Amani Dorn, the younger characters seem no different than today’s youth in the ways they move and speak, a credit to the festival’s production standards.
Imogen is played by Constance V Swain with fierce energy in a petite frame. She is engaged to the prophetically named Posthumus (Yao Dogbe), with whom she grew up. But her father the king (Howard Leder) frowns upon Posthumus’s lower birth status. Imogen’s stepmother the Queen (Tiffany Scott) wants her to instead marry Cloten (also Dogbe), the Queen’s son from a previous marriage, to ensure his succession to the throne.
Dogbe is amazing alternating between the upright and dedicated Posthumus and incredibly egotistical and easily insulted Cloten. Though the characters clearly look the same, they are distinct due to Dogbe’s chameleon-like transformations. While Posthumus is an inherently good character, Dogbe seems to have fun playing Cloten for deserved laughs.
When Posthumus is banished to Italy—evoked by warmer lighting (designed by Donna Ruzika)—he almost immediately and incredibly makes a wager with a drunk Iachimo (Josh Innerst) that the latter can’t rob Imogen of her chastity.
Meanwhile, Cymbeline’s former general Belarius (a formidable Jasmine Bracey), who had stolen the king’s two young sons 20 years prior— just before being unjustly banished for treason—is raising them to hunt and fight in the forest wearing fur pelts. Cloten, and eventually Imogen, encounter the boys there (ironically, because they are related), further convoluting the plot.
In changing the gender of the physically and morally strong Belarius from male to female (the boys call her “mother”), as well as that of pragmatic servant Pisanio (an earthy Afua Busia), the production adds female presence to an otherwise male-dominated play, and to good effect.
It also makes believable Imogen’s disguise as a boy. Besides fooling her own forest-raised brothers, she works as page to a Roman army commander (Jeremy Thompson) in Britain for quite some time as he engages in war with the British. Order is restored at the end, of course, though it takes some extended explanations on everyone’s part to tie up every thread.
Cymbeline has everything one would want in a Shakespeare play and then some—rhyming couplets, forbidden young love, a historical king, an evil stepmother queen, idyllic forest living, cross-dressing, fighting and equal dollops of comedy and tragedy.
This production of the play, however, imbues it with fresh life and rich texture. The continuous pace and cleverly orchestrated staging deliver the plot smoothly, even when it jumps. Thanks to the acting, we are invested in the characters through their twists and turns. Each actor brings their all, as if not merely playing but as if their roles are extensions of identities out in the real world today.
Cymbeline continues at the Utah Shakespeare Festival through Oct. 9, with performances Wednesdays through Saturdays. Run time is an engaging 3 hours, with intermission. Visit Bard.org for tickets and other information, or call the box office at (435) 586-7878 or (800) PLAY-TIX. Tickets are $49 to $59, with discounts available for students, seniors, groups and military. Masks are required during the performance.