As one steps around the dark, velvet curtain at the entryway to the theatre, one beholds a festive and lively group of actors in the center of the room, chatting, tuning instruments and warming up their voices. Several turn and welcome each of us warmly as we enter, as if we were family members or friends. The setting is intimate, only three tiers of benches wrapped around a small square stage that is open on all sides. I first notice the age range of the actors that seem to span several generations. They are clad in simple medieval attire suggestive of the time period.
It is a decidedly bohemian crowd, and there is a lot of laughter and conversation. The two instruments (guitar and violin) ease into harmony with each other, and play a light-hearted, uptempo melody. Communication between the actors intensifies, raising the energy in the room. The seperation between actors and audience becomes increasingly blurred, and it is surely intensional. I turn to comment about this to the father and daughter who sit next to me, and the father confesses that he is the director, Rob Duval.
I asked him if he would like to share a few thoughts about the play. He noted that the lighting matters. “The lights bleed onto the audience; we're not fooling anyone.” He then remarked that this play is not well known, and it was his intention to make it a “welcome and inviting experience”, assuring me that it was going to be “light, festive and fun with elements of drama”.
And so it begins with shouts of “Hark, hark, hark !”. The performers then begin a treacly ballad with lyrics like, “Arise, arise, my lady sweet arise !” We are informed that we audience members were to learn the song. After a quick call and response run-through, actors and audience joined in for a final rousing sing along. Much laughter ensued.
The plot was predictably convoluted, with the usual palace intrigue, betrayals, thwarted love and misguided loyalties. I was grateful for the very clear synopsis in the program. The players begin by calling out their lines rapid fire from different points of the room, staging the scene we have been drawn into.
It appears that King Cymbeline's daughter “Imogen” has secretly fallen in love and marrys Posthumous, who is then exhiled by the King's second wife (who is secretly plotting to have her own son Cloten marry Imogen in an effort to secure his place on the throne). This internal drama is set against greater political unrest caused by the King refusing to pay tribute to Rome. Imogen's virtue is tested; a wager is set between her lover and his friend (who wins with deception), and Posthumous is left feeling betrayed. In a fit of rage he asks her servant to murder her. The servent, ever loyal to his lady, cannot follow through and instead reveals his true mission to her. In despair, she begs him to complete the mission and kill her. When he is unable, they endeavor to find a way to restore her honor.
Shakespeare, if done well, peels away the veneer of soceity, family and individual exposing both the pain and absurdity of the human condition. This production was “light, festive and fun” to be sure, as wielded by the rapier wit of the actors at the very top of their game. Each delivered the nobility or ludicrousness of the moment with such rapid dialogue and precision of intent that we frequently gasped with laughter, before considering the joke may have perhaps been on us. But as the dew of embarrasment breaks upon the brow, the actors offer a jibe of such warmth and affection, or self effacement, that one feels the joke is not, after all, directed at “self”, but at the frailty and foolishness in all of us.
As the story unfolds, one realizes that (contrary to the assurance by Duval) a very clever ruse has come to light. One expects to be entertained here in this modest enclosure. The audience member has been flattered, even seduced into believing that inclusion is an honor and will enhance the expected pleasant experience.
And yet, as the story proceeds on the surface, this delicate trick has stripped all comforting detachment away. The dialogue which begins with the familiar cadense and poetry of Shakespeare, in later scenes, gets peppered with oddly currant jibes and words from our time. Embedded in the classical and perhaps the archaic, is a cadense of our streets, our personal foibles, our deviance, and our moral dessication. We have taken the bait and the trap is now sprung, there is no comforting distance; instead we must face the truth that this is our story that we have come to experience. Perhaps not in the specific turns of plot, nor in the convlouted relationships, butin the deeper dynamics of our human experience in the world, and how a shift of focus can change the import of everything. This is our life, our drama being exposed and although one can attempt escape, it would be cowardly, and ultimately a retreat into self delusion to even try.