Cymbeline, the most recent play by the St. Olaf theatre department, ran from Thursday, Feb. 12 to Sunday, Feb. 15. This production of one the more obscure works by William Shakespeare was directed by St. Olaf Artist in Residence Gary Gisselman and guest artist Jon Ferguson. There were five performances.
Before the show’s premiere, Gisselman often joked, “Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s least performed plays, and we’re trying to prove why that is.” While the show was in no way bad, it is understandable why stage productions of the show are so rare. Being among Shakespeare’s romances, Cymbeline exists in a strange mixture of tragedy and comedy that not all audience members find pleasing. In addition, the plot is incredibly convoluted, even for Shakespeare. In contrast to such greats as Hamlet and Twelfth Night, Cymbeline falls a little short. That being said, the cast and crew produced an incredibly well-made interpretation of the challenging script. All of the technical aspects were simply phenomenal. The set could only be described as beautiful, with its tall, amazingly painted trees, its superbly detailed rocks complete with fungi, and a screen in the background, projected with a multitude of vivid colors. The play’s use of music was exceptional as well. From great musical numbers to improvised ambient music playing throughout, the instrumentals served to hypnotize the audience members, drawing them further into the world of the play.
The acting was also top-notch. The actors, who rehearsed up to seven hours every day during Interim, appeared to be quite immersed in their characters, giving fun and stellar performances. In short, the cast and crew of Cymbeline should be commended for the near impossible task of putting on a Shakespeare play and having the script be the weakest point.
There were, however, some issues with the play. Some additions to the performance were awkward and didn’t quite fit. Notable examples are the attempts at referencing modern day pop culture, such as a twerking episode, or in the beginning when a character asks her iPhone to “find a good forest location for Cymbeline.” In a show where so much is done to successfully immerse the audience in the world of the play, these oddball attempts to be relevant just distract from the play’s magic. Speaking of unnecessary additions: there is a character in this play referred to as “the Russian Stage Manager.” As one can probably guess, she is not one of the original characters that Shakespeare wrote into the script. Why is she there? This remains unknown. The character does not add anything to the show in any way. Her purpose is just to be there and speak Russian. She is played for comedic effect occasionally, but it’s always essentially the same joke: “Hey look, someone’s on stage who isn’t supposed to be. Also, she’s speaking Russian.” It’s taking a bit that didn’t work that well to begin with, and repeating it again and again.
That being said, the good qualities of Cymbeline far outweighed the bad. In terms of acting, Jordan Solei ’15 undoubtedly steals the show, playing both Posthumus and Cloten – two men competing for the heart of the king’s daughter, Imogen Amy Jeppesen ’15. Seeing Solei deliver a passionate lover’s speech, and then return mere moments later as the world’s snottiest prince was an absolute joy. That’s not to say that others were not also entertaining. Dario Villabandos ’18 was equally hilarious and disgustingly creepy in his portrayal of the mischievous Iachimo. The booming voice of David Gottfried ’15 created himself as a powerful presence as the play’s title character. The brothers, Arvirarigus and Guiderius, played by Dominic Bower ’16 and Lily Bane ’17, were also fun to watch as they alternated between silly antics and terrifying ferocity and sometimes both simultaneously. In truth, all of the actors were great and played their parts well.
Two moments stand out distinctly as the highlights of the show. The first was Prince Cloten’s side-splitting attempt to woo Imogen through a very off-key musical number, complete with a groovy tune and back-up dancers. The other, more dramatic, stand-out moment was the battle scene, where the dark lighting, swift and fierce movement, and hypnotic music all came together to produce one of the most tense sequences seen on stage this year.
The playmakers even managed to play on some of the weaker aspects of the show. The excessive complexity of the first half comes to a hilarious front as all the characters gather at the end to figure out everything that had just happened in a lively “but wait, there’s more!” style.
Overall, despite its flaws, Cymbeline was an enjoyable and worthwhile opportunity to experience one of the more obscure Shakespeare plays, and almost certainly better than the film adaptation coming out next month.
PHOTO CREDIT: ABBY DAVIS/MANITOU MESSENGER