“Cymbeline,” Shakespeare’s ‘Fairy Tale’ Play

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jackiehouchin110BY JACKIE HOUCHIN

The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, with its 299-seat amphitheater in rustic Topanga Canyon, is the ideal venue for the reenactment of “Cymbeline” one of Shakespeare’s most complex and utterly delightful last plays.

Not strictly comedy, tragedy, romance play or history, but containing aspects of each, it is at times sweetly romantic, hilariously funny, wildly exciting, dramatic, and lump-in-the-throat poignant.  A rare treat for the eyes, the ears, the intellect…and the heart.

Willow Geer and Mike Peebler as innocent lovers are noteworthy among among a stellar cast in  "Cymbeline" at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum.  Photo: Ian Flanders

Willow Geer and Mike Peebler as innocent lovers are noteworthy among among a stellar cast in "Cymbeline" at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum. Photo: Ian Flanders

The large outdoor set – with its rough-hewn wooden stage (literal “boards” for the troupe to perform on) and backdrop of shady oak trees, brush and boulders – lends itself perfectly to the play’s game-hunting, pursuit and battle scenes.

The king’s castle and courtyard (suitable for clandestine meetings and under-the balcony serenades) are on the main stage with a tavern and a cave dwelling in the wings. The players also use the surrounding paths and the hillside, giving the production the feel of a wide screen movie.

The play opens amid chaos and panic as two young lovers hurriedly say their goodbyes. They cling to each other, kissing and weeping, for it is unlikely they will be together again. Ardently they exchange promises and tokens – a ring and a bracelet – as anxious servants pull them apart and hasten the youth on his way.

Princess Imogen (Willow Geer) falls to her knees, calling after her beloved Posthumus (Mike Peebler) even as her father, King Cymbeline (Thad Geer) arrives and sends his soldiers in pursuit.  The King harshly rebukes his daughter for secretly marrying beneath her station instead of choosing her stepbrother, the impotent and dull-witted Prince Cloten (Jeff Wiesen).  It’s obvious to all but him why she preferred the poor but noble-hearted “eagle” to the crowing, royal “rooster.”

Posthumus arrives at an Italian tavern, his grief obvious in the carousing crowd. When he describes his wife’s beauty and faithfulness, a handsome Roman soldier wagers that he could persuade the girl to commit adultery. Confident of his wife’s loyalty, Posthumus accepts the bet and gives the conceited Iachimo (Aaron Hendry in this performance) Imogen’s ring as surety.

Failing in his attempts to woo the wife, and hating to lose the bet, Iachimo steals the bracelet while she sleeps and offers it as evidence of his conquest.  Devastated, Posthumus sends his loyal servant, Pisanio (Gerald Rivers) to kill the falsely maligned Imogen. She flees, disguised as a boy, and encounters a woods-woman (Earnestine Phillips), a pair of wild children (hmm, they look familiar), a headless corpse (so does he!), and a regiment of invading Roman soldiers.

And this is only one of the plots the clever Bard has woven into his play.

There are also a murderous Queen (Susan Angelo); a “doctor” who sells poisons…sometimes; a royal kidnapping, and a conflicted king who decides in the midst of all the intrigue and deception to cease paying tribute to Caesar. And… for all the hopeless romantics in the audience:  joyous reunions and a “glorious happy ending.”

Is it any wonder that many in the crowd rose in ovation, shouting “Bravo!” after the play’s eye-popping final scene?

A stellar cast, all, but especially noteworthy were, Willow Geer and Mike Peebler as the innocent lovers (their portrayal of pain and passion evoked our sympathy); Gerald Rivers as their loyal servant (a truly complex character, played well); Aaron Hendry as the lustful “villain” (easy to hate, but impossible to watch without a grin); Matt Ducati and Samara Frame as Belarius’s wild “children” (what fun to watch them cavorting through the trees); and Jeff Wiesen as the foolish, foppish Cloten (and the laughter he always inspired).

Ellen Geer’s vision and skillful direction, as well as Stuart Rogers’ realistic fight choreography make “Cymbeline” an enjoyable, fascinating and exciting theater experience you won’t soon forget.

The outdoor amphitheatre is terraced into the hillside and has bench seating.  Theatergoers are advised to dress casually (warmly in cool weather) and bring cushions.

Those arriving early can stroll through the shady grounds, enjoy a snack from the Hamlet Hut or bring a picnic meal (benches and tables are scattered among the trees and by a small creek). A strolling troupe of madrigal singers will entertain and “set the stage” for this remarkable Shakespearean experience.

“Cymbeline” is performed every Sunday afternoon at 3:30 pm, through September 27.  General admission is $30 and $20. (Seniors, Students, Equity members and Iraq War Veterans:  $20 and $15), (Children 5-12: $10), (Children under 5: free).  For tickets and information, call (310) 455-3723 or visit www.theatricum.com.  The WGTB is located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd, in Topanga, midway between Malibu and the San Fernando Valley.

Jackie Houchin is a freelance theater reviewer, covering plays, musicals and readings for the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys. She also reviews books for several mystery magazines and writes articles for a local biweekly newspaper.  www.jackiehouchin.com

About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.