By Carolyn Hayes
A king’s obligation to a fellow empire, a servant’s commitment to his master, a spouse’s fidelity – these variations on the notion of loyalty have at least two things in common. First, they’re all fraught with complexity, and second, all are found within Shakespeare’s grandiose tragedy/romance/problem play, “Cymbeline.” With this infrequently produced text, director Barton Bund again takes up the mantle of the Shakespeare West festival, leading the Blackbird Theatre out of doors to picturesque West Park in Ann Arbor and setting out political and personal conflict to simmer.
The title suggests that the story belongs to the British king Cymbeline (Lynch R. Travis), but the true protagonist appears to be his strong-willed daughter, the princess Imogen (Jamie Weeder); it is through her that most of the characters are introduced and interconnected. Despite being Cymbeline’s heir and the future queen, Imogen has secretly married a commoner (Alastar Dimitrie), who is summarily banished. Meanwhile, Imogen’s stepmother-queen (Qamara Black) dabbles in alchemy and sabotage, scheming for her own lineage to usurp the throne. In other news, Britain no longer cares to pay taxes to Caesar, which the Roman Empire answers with a declaration of war. What follows is an imaginative entanglement involving wagering, seduction, defamation, yearning, misapprehension, insurrection, conspiracy, duplicity, camaraderie, apparition and bloodshed.
This is all achieved in Bund’s adaptation by a cast of only six, which dictates distilling the plot to its most vital elements, stripping the binding fabric of the story down to robust individual threads. (Each of the performers is also double or triple cast in various roles, which feels like a choice borne out of necessity rather than interpretive insight, especially when characters begin assuming disguises – although, to Bund’s credit, chaos never reigns.) While there is a clipped sense of absent exposition that ancillary characters provide, the play smoothly pulls the viewer through its vignettes and clearly lays out the characters and their relationships and intentions.
More importantly, the scenes are unified and elevated by their common atmosphere of uneasy accord, of politely hosting suspected enemies, or cooperating with a rival to reach a mutually satisfactory conclusion. There’s something magnetically ancient and dire about consorting with adversaries face to face; here, it’s a crucial contributor to the production’s gritty old-world concept, whose haughty fantasy influences are starkly apparent.
The deep earthen and bloody tones of Jeannie Arquette’s costume design have a plainly romantic bent, especially in flowing pieces that flutter in the open air. Sparing set design by Joshua M. Parker drops hints of Doric classicism to complement the West Park band shell and draws in imposing natural influences, suggestive of a kind of open-air Valhalla. In addition to the show’s few haunting scripted interludes of song, Bund provides percussion cues that conceptually evoke marching armies as they sensibly signal and summon the actors from afar.
Indeed, in the company’s hands, the “stage” is entirely without boundaries, a breeding ground for daring staging and wide-focus as well as intimate work. Admittedly, the production cannot fully overcome the logistical problems that arise from such a sprawling, unconventional playing space, such as the long march from far backstage and across a gully that stalls the beginning of several scenes. More broadly, the amalgamation of inside and outside actions (and indoor and outdoor voices) do not inherently play well together – viewers should sit as close to main stage center as they can to ensure the best possible audio and visual experience.
The robust ensemble does justice to the text and story, which swims in villainy but declines to deliver a delectable Shakespearean villain. Instead, Black’s nefarious motives feel disorganized and diffuse, whereas Dimitrie’s dogged turn as the queen’s thwarted son is most notable for its subtle, almost secret comedy. Dan Johnson does fine lascivious work as a greedy, competitive and crafty troublemaker, although his is a hasty reckoning.
The most relatable excursion into the moral middle ground comes from Jesse Arehart-Jacobs, as a servant contemptibly torn between his duty and his fidelity. The plucky Weeder proves a rootable hero throughout, both in her comfort zone at court and when knocked off her moorings throughout the ricochet second act. As for Travis, his best work comes in a refreshing departure from the main plot, in an unfettered show of friendliness and brotherhood that is sorely needed in this world of mistrust.
This “Cymbeline” tells an absorbing story of conflict on a tremendous canvas, spreading its intriguing atmosphere of mistrust through the fresh June air. The production’s imperfections may keep viewers mindful of the many challenges of outdoor theater, but its innovative successes are all the more satisfying for it.