From left, Alex Givens and Anique Clements, playing Posthumous and Imogen respectively, perform a scene during a rehearsal of “Cymbeline.” The play will debut this weekend as part of the Great River Shakespeare Festival’s 16th season.
by NATHANIEL NELSON
When you hear the name William Shakespeare, there are dozens of works that pop into mind –– like “Romeo and Juliet,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Macbeth” and “Othello.” Millions have read his works in English courses and seen his writing performed on the stage.
But this year, Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) is digging deep into Shakespeare’s catalog to bring one of his wildest works to the stage to surprise even the most well-versed of Shakespeare fanatics –– “Cymbeline.”
“He took a lot of different characters and themes from different plays and mixed them into the gumbo that is ‘Cymbeline,’” explained actor Alex Givens. “That’s what makes it such a tricky play to do.”
In a sense, “Cymbeline” is one of the quirkier works in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. The sprawling romance moves from Britain to Rome to the forest to caves and everywhere in between, with character arcs and motivations that shift on a dime. The play thrives off its ability to throw the audience from their expectations –– even the name in Shakespeare’s First Folio, “The Tragedy of Cymbeline,” is a misnomer and misdirection.
“There is nothing tragic about it, and I think that is one more way to surprise the audience. They go into the play expecting a tragedy,” explained director Doug Scholz-Carlson.
Scholz-Carlson said “Cymbeline” was written by Shakespeare at the height of his craft, at a time when his writing abilities –– and penchant for surprise –– were in full swing. To describe the play in full would be a disservice to the audience.
“It’s my favorite play. I love it,” Scholz-Carlson explained. “It’s so wonderfully imperfect. It is like life –– not everything lines up perfectly, but some things do. Even within the context of the play, there are so many times the actors are talking to the audience and commenting on the story, which I think is what happens in our lives. We try to attach meaning to things in our lives, but they are random.”
In short, the play is about Imogen, the daughter of King Cymbeline, who marries her childhood friend Posthumus in secret against her father’s wishes. Cymbeline’s new wife, known simply as the Queen, is hoping for Imogen to marry her son Cloten to cement her bloodline in a path to the throne. The work is typically Shakespearean in some regards, with deception, lies, intricate characterizations, and –– of course –– a deeply human theme.
“It’s one of the romances, which are one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote in his life, and it’s about grace and forgiveness,” Scholz-Carlson said. “I just think that’s so timely right now. Where we are in our world, we are so polarized and so good at pointing our fingers at each other, not at being graceful.”
“Cymbeline” is not an easy play to present, Scholz-Carlson explained. The work is densely packed with characters that veer from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other, constant audience interaction, cross-continent travel and intensely intricate English. While plays like “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummers Night’s Dream” can be performed well even by a high school drama troupe, “Cymbeline” is a different monster entirely.
“The play can only be done by people who speak the language very well,” he explained. “Without people who have spent a lot of time working on the language, it would be really easy to get lost in ‘Cymbeline.’”
“It’s kind of an Herculean effort to put it on well, but I think we’re on our way,” Givens added.
Givens, who plays both the roles of Cloten and Posthumus in the play, explained that “Cymbeline” is one of the more human plays of Shakespeare. In preparing for the role, he and his fellow actors worked backward, finding the motivations and points-of-view of the characters in individual lines. Unlike many plays, these aspects shift quickly for characters in “Cymbeline,” which was a showcase for Shakespeare’s late-career talent.
“Humans actually think illogically. Our acts and ideas come from impulse, not from logic,” Givens said. “Shakespeare had his thumb on the post of the human condition. He really makes the actors think the way that humans do.”
Givens performs double-duty in the play, taking on the roles of Cloten and Posthumus –– two men who are both in love with Imogen. According to Scholz-Carlson, while this may seem like an off take, it’s highly likely that it was the intention of Shakespeare in the first place.
“They never appear on stage at the same time, they get mistaken for each other at one point, and there is a point in the story where Imogen can’t tell the difference between Cloten and Posthumus,” Scholz-Carlson explained. “It’s also a chance for some real virtuosic acting.”
Givens explained that playing the two characters was a great challenge for him as an actor, and forced him to try different routes at attacking the motivations of the character. Before working through the specific styles and moods of the two characters, his first step was analyzing how the characters work and where their minds are settled.
Posthumus is in love with Imogen as a person, highlighting her virtues and what lies inside, while Cloten is obsessed with the power and money that Imogen represents, he explained. There’s also what is keeping the two men from Imogen: for Posthumus, his barrier is the entire world, while Cloten is held back by Imogen herself.
“It’s been a lot of fun. It’s a great work out for any actor,” Givens explained. “There are times where I have the last line of the scene, and the second line of the next scene as a different character. You never want to go on autopilot, but it needs to be a lot more muscle-memory based.”
He also added that the play provides a few firsts for the festival, as well.
“It’s the first time that we will have taken on this show at GRSF,” Givens said. “It’s also the first time we’ve had a cast that is predominantly made up of black actors, and I’m particularly proud of that.”
“I think [audiences] can expect to see a night of theater that is incredibly fast, witty, fun, as well as wildly interactive,” Givens added. The performances will include audiences seated right on the stage, he explained, as the characters talk about what’s going on and –– at one point –– even stopping the action entirely because they don’t like the way the story is unfolding.
“That has been one of the really guiding things,” Scholz-Carlson explained. “You’re having this live experience in the theater, and it feels like you’re part of the story. You really feel like you are right there and in the middle of the company.”
Above all, he added, the play will give audiences a chance to see something new. The themes, including grace, forgiveness, wrath and gender roles are all important topics for today’s audience, but the rarely performed “Cymbeline” is something that many people never get a chance to see.
“The biggest thing is to be surprised,” Scholz-Carlson said. “You don’t know where the story is going. I think it makes it a lot of fun in the theater because you can genuinely be surprised. It also gives you a lot to think about. It raises more questions than it answers, so I think it will be good for conversation.”
“Cymbeline” opens on Sunday, June 30, as part of GRSF’s 16th season, alongside Shakespeare’s seminal murder masterpiece “Macbeth,” the breakneck comedy “The Servant of Two Masters,” the avant-garde unscripted head trip “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit,” and the deconstruction of the New York public education system in “No Child…” There will also be lectures from visiting experts, pre-show talks, a fun run, and more special events. For more information, visit ww.grsf.org.