Kudos to the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival for choosing an infrequently performed play for this year’s free summer performances at lovely parks throughout the Bay Area.
“Cymbeline,” one of Shakespeare’s late plays, includes many devices he used throughout his illustrious career – banishment, mistaken identity, stolen children who discover their true lineage. Poison, forbidden love, and murder.
As a mix of genres, it is sometimes referred to as a tragicomedy. Under Maryssa Wanlass’ direction, the company works hard at making the play accessible to audiences, no matter how new they are to Shakespearean drama. The company, which recently performed in Redwood City’s Red Morton Park, concludes its season with weekend shows in San Francisco and Orinda in September.
The rather long play is tailored to a comfortable 95 minutes by replacing the first scenes with a verbal summary of the characters and early action. Audience members also are invited to participate; they learn a few lines of well-performed songs that thread through the play.
The action takes place in front of a palatial facade worthy of a fairy tale. Creative use is made of the scenery’s turrets, which pop open to reveal a guitar-slinging Jupiter, the Roman god, or the evil plotter Iachimo. A sword fight between warring factions gives the play an expansive, action quality, while the ongoing conflict between Romans and Britons ends in conciliation and goodwill.
It’s not the simplest plot: Cymbeline (Ron Chapman), the English king during the Roman Empire, is upset by his daughter Imogen’s (Shakoria Davis) secret marriage to the decent and upstanding but lower class Posthumus (Deanalís Arocho Resto), who in this version is transexual.
The king’s second wife (Catherine Luedtke) plots to have her awkward and ill-tempered son Cloten (Nathaniel Andalis) woo and win Imogen. In a fit of anger, the king exiles Posthumus, who travels to Italy, where he meets the sinister Iachimo (Andalis again, who is excellent in very different roles) who bets that he can seduce Imogen. (Also in a dual role, Mayou Roffé excels as the warrior Caius Lucius and hobbling doctor Cornelius.)
Cloten tries to win Imogen, only to be killed by the sons of Cymbeline who had been stolen as infants and raised as shepherds. A war between the Britons and the Romans reveals Posthumus to be valiant and uncovers Iachimo’s trickery. Ultimately, peace is made, Imogen and Posthumus are reunited, the sons return to their royal place and Cymbeline rejoices in his reunited family.
Now in its 41st year, the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival has a mission to make Shakespeare accessible to everyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, financial status or level of education. The nonprofit’s shows represent an introduction to Shakespeare and the performing arts for most of its audiences and aim to spotlight the relevance of Shakespeare to today’s society and to inspire students and audiences to seek out additional theatrical experiences.
Free Shakespeare in the Park performances of “Cymbeline” continue at 2 p.m. Sept. 2-4 and Sept. 9-10 at Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, McLaren Park, San Francisco, and at 4 p.m. Sept. 16-17 and Sept. 23-24 at Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. Call (415) 558-0888 or visit sfshakes.org for more information.