'Cymbeline' finds its success in excess

Is that old rascal Shakespeare having us on? Take a plucky heroine a la Viola or Rosalind. Plunk her down among lurid motifs (lecherous villains, an evil stepmother, long-lost brothers, invading armies and ghosts, lots of ghosts). Add a plot whose convolutions defy description and almost require seat belts.

Throw in some poison, cross-dressing, a beheading and, oh, a war, and set the whole thing bouncing around between the ancient British court, a cave in Wales, Renaissance Italy and ancient Rome, the latter two of which seem to co-exist in one time frame.

That's the recipe for "Cymbeline," a crazy-quilt mashup of comedy, tragedy, history, fairy tale and, perhaps, parody. The genre-bending romance is not among the mainstays in the Canon — even the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's last production of it was in 1998 — but in the OSF's new version, director Bill Rauch gleefully serves up real delights that lurk in the play's excesses.

The First Folio of 1623 divided Shakespeare's plays into histories, comedies and tragedies, but some plays didn't fit those slots handily, including "problem plays" and "romances" with their magical and fantastical elements. "The Winter's Tale" and "The Tempest" are the gold-standard romances, while "Pericles" and "Cymbeline" are sometimes thought of as flawed experiments that didn't quite nail the genre.

With a cast of dozens and a set that exudes a brute, boreal mysticism, the production that kicked off the OSF's outdoor season Friday night on the Elizabethan Stage wears its fairy-tale heritage on its sleeve. There are elves, ghosts, a soothsayer, a jailer that's a cross between Shrek's more sinister brother and an orc.

Kenajuan Bentley, as the oily Italian cad Iachimo, might not twirl a mustache, but it seems like it. Robin Goodrin Nordli, as the wicked Queen (that's her only name, and it points, as does the name of Posthumous, to her nature), actually cackles. There's even an allusion to the poisoned apple of "Show White," complete with its own musical theme.

We're in Britain in the days of the Roman Empire, and Posthumous, a young gentleman, has married Imogen, King Cybeline's daughter, thus starting things where comedy typically ends. He is worthy, but not of royal blood, so Cymbeline (Howie Seago) has banished him. In Rome, Posthumous wagers on his bride's virtue with Iachimo, setting up the play's romantic plot.

The Queen, a template for wicked stepmothers to come, has put forth her oafish son, Cloten, as a candidate for Imogen's hand and, eventually, the throne (trust me, you need to know all this).

Cloten (Al Espinosa), is vain, brutish and dim-witted. Got up in puffy knickers and gazing at himself in a hand mirror, he schemes to kill Posthumous and rape Imogen, a plan over which he'll lose his head with the help of Guiderius (Raffi Barsoumian).

Guiderius and Arviragus (Ray Fisher), are living in a cave in Wales as woodsmen with Belarius (Jeffrey King), whom they believe to be their father and who was unjustly exiled by Cymbeline 20 years ago. They are actually the King's long-lost sons and Imogen's brothers, snatched from the court by Belarius.

There are lots of laughs in the script. And a lot that probably aren't in the script, as the audience goes along for the ride, with gusto. After all, the major characters have all lost something, so the play is not without gravitas, even a touch of pathos.

Imogen and Posthumous are portrayed with enough psychological realism that they sometimes look like tragic characters running around in comic situations. We wonder if the mercurial Posthumous is worthy of the more stalwart Imogen.

The amalgam of comic and tragic tropes in the same scenes sometimes creates an awkward tension. When Imogen wakes from a potion-induced, death-mimicking trance to the beheaded corpse she thinks is her husband, the audience laughs, but it's whistling past the graveyard.

Elfin characters (complete with the ears) and a soothsayer portrayed with eerie power by Erica Sullivan add a bit of an alienation effect here and there, as if Shakespeare were giving us a Brechtian wink passed on by Rauch.

There are misadventures in the wilds of Wales and heavy fighting as Rome invades Britain. But some of the most compelling moments are the intimate ones, as when Iachimo penetrates Imogen's bedchamber through a ruse involving a box and observes the details he'll use to falsely convince Posthumous of his wife's infidelity. He is a sort of Iago Lite, and Bentley endows him with evil relish.

Other wonders on display are some of Shakespeare's loveliest songs, including the funeral elegy about how golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust, sung by Guiderius and Arviragus to what they believe is their dead new friend.

One thing I did not see was the appearance of Jupiter, the king of the gods, who comes late in the play at the behest of Posthumous' ghost parents. In the text he descends on an eagle, a literal deus ex machina, and declares that Posthumous will be "the lord of Lady Imogen," recites poetry and flies away. That's an effect you'd think would be hard to miss, but maybe I got some of the Queen's sleepy juice.

"Cymbeline" has one of the most byzantine denouements ever. An old joke is that if, after seeing the play, you can explain what happened, you win a prize.

Rauch and company bring it all together into a highly theatrical and engaging production, and in the end, the movement, sure if not steady, is through chaos to order.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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