A high-spirited production of ”Cymbeline” is endowed with a sense of humor, despite Shakespeare’s dark undertones.

Tamara Hickey and Thomas Brazzle in Cymbeline, directed by Tina Packer, at Shakespeare & Company.
Tamara Hickey and Thomas Brazzle in Cymbeline, directed by Tina Packer, at Shakespeare & Company.
(© Stratton McCrady)

Tina Packer celebrates her 40th anniversary as founding director of Shakespeare & Company by directing Shakespeare's Cymbeline, a play whose themes still feel contemporary today: parents trying to control their children, and men becoming jealous of other men’s possessions to the point that their pride leads to revenge and their bluster causes war.

Cymbeline, with its large number of plots and subplots that are ripped from Shakespeare’s earlier works, offers more than enough action for one play. Packer not only presents many who-loves-whom and who-thwarts-whom story lines with clarity, but has taken on the additional challenge of multiplying only nine actors for the two dozen speaking roles, not to mention sending them into battle as warriors of the British and Roman armies.

The cast is packed with Shakespeare & Company veterans to help her: Jonathan Epstein as Cymbeline, the short-tempered king of Britain, who is also nimble in his Welsh accent as a lord of the court and his declamatory voice as the god on high, Jupiter; Nigel Gore in the sympathetic role of the exiled Belarius, who has raised the king’s two sons in the forest, and reappears later as the Roman general, Caius Lucius, and the wise doctor, Cornelius. Jason Asprey plays both the clod of a prince, Cloten, and the honey-tongued Soothsayer. The actors deftly change clothes for their characters onstage.

The plight of Cymbeline’s daughter, Imogen, portrayed with wisdom, beauty, and feisty courage by Tamara Hickey, centers the play. After she marries the commoner, Posthumus (Thomas Brazzle), against her father’s wishes, Posthumus is exiled and leaves for Rome, where he meets the villain Iachimo (Josh Aaron McCabe), who bets Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen. Meanwhile, back at Cymbeline’s court, his Queen (Bella Merlin) is scheming to marry Cloten to Imogen and seize the throne. After being harassed by Iachimo, Imogen, disguised as a young page, escapes to the forest, where she comes upon the cave of her unknown half brothers (Ella Loudon and Merlin), who rescue her. And all that happens before intermission.

The long play proceeds at breakneck speed, but takes time for some memorable scenes, including when Iachimo breaks into Imogen’s room at night to steal her bracelet as proof of his success in a breathtaking display of a man’s lust and ambition. Later, Imogen’s brothers, believing that she is dead, sing the lovely elegy "Fear no more the heat o’ the sun," while several of the actors steal onto the stage behind them to add their voices.

The production is enhanced by clever period costumes designed by Tyler Kinney. Set designer Kris Stone makes good use of the bare stage, adorning it with props that help tell the story. Asprey also serves as fight director, moving the small number of players effectively around the space, with slaps and groans for punctuation. However, Packer’s trust in Shakespeare, and her basing the production on the true grit of one woman, turns this historically problematic play into a wonderful evening of theater.

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Closed: August 6, 2017