Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Cymbeline Soars

Kelly Garrett as an Apparition
By K. Lindsay Eaves
Photos by Rob Merritt

Iowa City -- Just across the street from the sporting arena of Kinnick Stadium, audiences are invited to journey away with Fourth Room Theatre to a simpler, more intimate time. Hidden amongst the trees in a sequestered portion of Melrose Avenue, Cymbeline unfolds in a secluded outdoor kingdom where modern mysticism reigns.

Upon entering this urban Shakespeare preserve of sorts, one is guided to a residential glade where, rather than preshow music, the audience is greeted by the tranquil twitter of birds (courtesy of sound design team Dennis Lambing and Angie Toomsen).

The air of the preshow occasion is one of Renaissance Faire frivolity: the audience is encouraged to bring picnic baskets and their own beverage of choice, be it pop, beer or even glasses of wine. The audience members at Friday's opening-night performance convivially shared their wine screws and blankets, and an air of easy camaraderie pervaded the glen.

An opening tableaux vivant is executed with exquisite grace as a frolicking Imogen and Posthumus, our heroine and hero, are greeted by the supporting players (who, much like Peter and the Wolf, are set to their own musical strains).

K. Michael Moore as Posthumus; Ottavia DeLuca as Imogen

The show itself is a sumptuous visual feast, more Vogue fashion shoot than set, much to the credit of the art and wiles of stage designer K. Michael Moore and costume designer Avonique Tipsword.

If you're unfamiliar with the play, you would be in the company of all but the most ardent bardophiles. Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s later contrivances, and is often denigrated as one of the bard’s “lesser” works. However, it is made grand within Iowa City. Cymbeline is a fantastical tale, difficult to categorize, as it shares aspects of many genres and borrows many tropes from Shakespeare’s other plays: there are star-crossed lovers, ambitious and vengeful royals, quarrelsome kinsmen, perilous and unpredictable potions, staunch companions, otherworldly interlopers, and swordplay (choreographed by cast member K. Michael Moore).

Scholars often view Cymbeline as a trash-heap for the bard’s spent imagination. In Director Angie Toomsen’s vision, however, we see the play arise as a phoenix from this refuse, a product, rather of the workshop of the Swan of Avon’s fancy. For, as such, one can envision the strength of his reimagining, remolding the tropes he has explored to a stronger and more worthy bent.

From this revision, we greet Imogen, a heroine of rare resourcefulness and beauty and wit. Ottavia De Luca is equal to this role, dispatching it with sparkle and spunk. Fans of “The Princess Bride” and “Stardust” are treated to a damsel who damns her distress and her circumstances.

Her star-crossed husband, Posthumus Leonatus (Moore), “is a creature such/As, to seek through the regions of the earth/For one his like, there would be something failing/In him that should compare." But as we soon see, Posthumus is a “stuffed man.” He appears to be a very model of what a man might aspire to be, but to say he has trust issues is an understatement. The greatest recommendation of his character is the love of his Imogen, which perhaps esteems him too greatly.

Mark McCusker as Cymbeline; Avonique Tipsword as the Queen
This wedded pair is parted by the wishes of Imogen’s father, Cymbeline (Mark McCusker), a preening peacock clad in woad blue pageantry, hen-pecked by his queen. Beautiful but remote, the Queen is described as a paragon of “dissembling courtesy.” However, as portrayed by Avonique Tipsword, there is no veil to her very open contempt for those around her -- excepting her ridiculous clod of a son, for whom she appeared to have a yawning blind spot. Cloten, the Queen’s son, is a strutting cock with a red hand-comb, with which he attacks his coiffure to comic effect, delivered with bumbling bellicosity by Logan Natvig.

Posthumus' banishment is a result of the queen’s displeasure that Cloten’s bid for Imogen’s hand has been thrown back in their face. Once in exile, Posthumus encounters a devilish rogue in Italy by the name of Iachimo (played by Matthew James). Upon hearing of her constancy, Iachimo arrogantly boasts that he can win the chaste Imogen.

When Iachimo finds himself unable to woo Imogen with his honeyed words, he hides himself in a kind of magnum Trojan box to be delivered into her chamber while she is asleep. The vile voyeurism evident in Iachimo’s defilement of Imogen’s secrets, if not her person, is a violation viscerally felt.

Once returned, Iachimo conveys to Posthumus secrets about Imogen that Iachimo has dishonorably and dishonestly learned, as well as her stolen bracelet. One particularly lovely moment is when, in response, Moore's Posthumus cries out, “May be she pluck'd it off/To send it me.” James mockingly replies, “She writes so to you, doth she?” Moore clasps his side where lies his Imogen’s letter, as though it is the site of a mortal wound.

The young lover immediately dissolves, no longer believing the sanctity of his Imogen’s vows and crying that by this bracelet, "she hath bought the name of whore thus dearly." This disbelief forms the principal backdrop of the play, in contrast to Imogen's immovable constancy and fidelity.

Imogen remains unflagging in her devotion even upon learning that Posthumus has charged his faithful servant Pisanio (Becca Anderson) with her murder (a task Pisanio refuses). Anderson's glistening-eyed observance of Imogen as she learns of her husband's misguided treachery is heart-breaking in its simple and pure conveyance.

James Trainor as Arviragus; Kehry Anson Lane as Guiderius

In her flight to find her lord and rekindle their spark -- and disguised as a lad by the name of "Fidele" -- Imogen encounters three mountain men. Two of these yoga-performing yokels are none other than Imogen's own brothers Guiderius (Kehry Anson Lane) and Arviragus (James Trainor), who were kidnapped as babes. The three siblings share an immediate bond that is difficult for them to understand. But just as their noble birth is apparent in their every action, their royal blood creates a natural affinity; as their adoptive father Belarius (Rip Russell), remarks, "How hard it is to hide the sparks of nature."

While the conflict between Posthumus and Imogen (and the unwitting reunion of the royal family in the midst of conflict with Rome) drives the main story of the play, the supporting characters of Cymbeline provide comic moments that bring levity to the twists and turns of the various plots and subplots. Scott Strode is well-cast as the doddering and dotty doctor Cornelius, cackling like a crow at his own cleverness. In a critical scene with the Queen, Strode demonstrates the kind of smiling deceptions necessary to keep one’s place in Cymbeline’s court.

Hovering in the wings of the show are the Apparitions (Roxy Running, Annmarie Steffes, Kelly Garrett and Jorie Slodki), who maintain an impious curiosity, as Shakespeare often portrays the attitude of immortals towards humanity. In Toomsen's vision, they morph to become a variety of supporting players, from soothsayer to handmaiden to barflies to soldiers.

Moore as Posthumus; DeLuca as Imogen

Fourth Room’s Cymbeline is a well-crafted composition, though the unfamiliarity of the play may cause the true strength of Toomsen's re-crafting and reworking to go unappreciated. As Toomsen comments in her Director’s Note, “I realized recently that some of my favorite elements in Shakespeare’s plays are things other productions often cut for length.” That is well believable, as the play runs a hefty three hours including intermission, but audience members remained under its spell for the duration.

Those seeking refuge from modern cares will revel in Cymbeline. Fourth Room Theatre -- in concert with generous support from the University of Iowa Shulman Hillel and Dr. Michael Flaum -- has brought Shakespeare to the people, even in their own backyard.

Cymbeline runs through Saturday, 6/1 at 901 Melrose in Iowa City. This includes a special added performance tomorrow, Wednesday, 5/29. Tickets are free, but reservations (via phone (text or call) at 319-541-0038 or by email at info@forthroomtheatre.com) are highly recommended to be kept up-to-date on any weather related venue changes.

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