Cymbeline: A Folk Tale With Music
When staging Shakespeare, there are arguments for and against extensive tweaking to make the material more approachable for contemporary audiences. First Folio Theatre's "Cymbeline: A Folk Tale with Music" is decidedly pro-tweaking. The production is enjoyable, thanks to a strong cast overall, but the adaptation doesn't end up making a strong case for straying far from the original text.
David Rice's adaptation transfers the setting from the Roman incursion into the Kingdom of Britain to the Union army pressuring the newly formed West Virginia during the Civil War for taxes and military support. The analogy isn't a bad one, though I wonder whether most contemporary audiences are any more familiar the politics of West Virginia's statehood than those of the Roman Empire. Ultimately, most of the setting-related alterations to the text (for example, the insertion of Lincoln's name for August Caesar's and continual references to Appalachia) are awkward and call more attention to themselves than necessary.
On the positive side of the setting, Angela Weber Miller's barn cum dollhouse set is attractive and efficient. The ease of entrances and exits, as well as efficient use of the set's multiple levels, goes a long way toward alleviating pacing problems. Furthermore, Michael McNamara's Lighting Design has a great deal of fun with the scenic design.
The other major alteration is the addition of a number of songs by Rice and First Folio's resident composer, Michael Keefe. Some are wholly original, others are adaptations of the original text. Taken individually, the songs are pleasant and sometimes entertaining. The instrumentation (fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, bass, ukulele, melodica and various percussion instruments) is pleasing and well executed as ambient and interstitial music.
However, the songs differ so greatly in duration, tone, and content that they're unfortunately prone to derail the momentum of an already long show. On balance, all the performers are more than capable, but for several of the earlier numbers, the singers seemed to have difficulty hearing one another.
In an interview with The Hinsdalean, director Michael Goldberg notes that "Cymbeline" is not just one of Shakespeare's lesser-known works, it's one of the more unapproachable plays. Although Goldberg speaks enthusiastically about Rice's adaptation, there are a number of rough transitions in emotional tone that call into question how well the page translates to stage here.
The cast is uniformly solid, though again there are some weak spots and questionable choices to challenge them. All of the actors use a generalized Southern accent that isn't necessarily easy on either the original text or adapted dialogue. There is some nod to the class structure in both accents and Rachel Lambert's costumes, under dialect coach Jason Martin, the accents are not consistent enough to convey a clear theme or do much to simplify the play's politics.
In the main cast, Kate McDermott suffers most from some shaky direction as Imogen. Many of the play's harrowing or tragic scenes center on her, and the production seems more interested in broad comedy, leading to some jarring moments that don't seem attributable to any lack of ability on McDermott's part.
James Earl Jones II is exceptionally good as Iachimo. He makes much of the music work better than it would with a less capable actor/singer, and he pulls off the campy charm of "When Gabriel Comes" so well that the double casting of Jones as The Angel Gabriel works, as does the awkward substitution of Christian mythic figures for Jupiter and visions of Posthumus' late family, at least to some extent.
As Cloten, Andrew Behling is a standout, as is Skyler Schrempp as Pisania. Some of the comedy in the show was played broadly enough to fall flat, and Behring is the most consistent in carrying it off. Similarly, as the faithful servant of Posthumus', then Imogen, Schrempp is adept at injecting real feeling into a number of the more serious expository scenes.
John Milewski and Lia Mortensen are both impressive and imposing as Cymbeline and his Queen, respectively, but their appearances on stage are somewhat disjointed, so that it feels as if more use might have been made of these capable actors in this production.
It's unsurprising that Ron Keaton was offered the role of Morgan without audition. He seems to exactly fit the director's vision for the exiled general turned shepherd in addition to ably serving as the Prologue.
With the exception of Behring as Cloten, the performances of the younger males in the production are harder to comment on. Matthew Keffer's work as Posthumus is appealing, but the show does not seem particularly interested in his character. The same is true of Tyler Rich and Ryan Czerwonko as Cymbeline's sons, abducted in infancy and raised by Morgan.
First Folio certainly deserves credit of for taking on a difficult lesser-known work and for the ambition of the adaptation, and of course for offering outdoor Shakespeare in such a beautiful setting. There's a lot to like in the production, even if one wishes that some of it worked better than it does.
"Cymbeline: A Folk Tale With Music" plays through July 21 at the Mayslake Peabody Estate, 31st street and Rt. 83, in Oakbrook. For information or tickets, call 630-986-8067 or visit www.firstfolio.org.