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STREAMING THEATER REVIEW Cymbeline: A Folk Tale With Music
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2020-06-07

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Playwright: William Shakespeare. At: First Folio Theatre streaming online at FirstFolio.org . Tickets: $20. Runs through: June 14

If Shakespeare hadn't written it, would any theater still choose to grapple with the challenges presented by a story cataloguing its author's collection of twists and gimmickry?

It's an inventory encompassing contentious monarchs, runaway princesses, long-lost siblings, exiled courtiers, evil stepmothers, apothecarial mercenaries, dream sequences, purloined letters, fake death reports, eleventh-hour confessions, cross-dressing damsels, boastful swains wagering their sweethearts' chastity, and villains granted undeserved forgiveness ( or a decent burial, at least ).

How do you render this screwball—and nowadays disturbingly sexist—comedy appealing to playgoers of more emancipated sensibilities? Well, you can declare it a fairy tale, as most modern companies do, and proceed to drown its retro silliness in likewise retro spectacle, or you can adopt David Rice's solution to clearing away the narrative clutter, which is to relocate the action to surroundings immediately recognizable to his audiences—by virtue of Hollywood lore, if not personal memory.

The playbill now informs us that the year is 1863 and we are in West Virginia, where "King" Cymbeline reigns over his remote Appalachian empire, its isolation preserving customs largely unchanged from the England of Shakespeare's time. The unlikelihood of the events arising from the landowner's refusal to assist in the war effort—despite the exhortations of "Mister Lincoln"—and the machinations of his scheming wife can thus be attributed to the frontier morality reflected in that quintessential U.S. literary genre, the tall tale. Further familiarizing us with our dramatic environment is the score of ballads supplied by Rice and Music Director Michael Keefe, featuring lyrics based in the Bard's text and bluegrass-tinged melodies performed live on stage by a string band whose arrangements include such indigenous instruments as washboard percussion and crockery-jug tuba.

The proximity of genuine flora and fauna provided by First Folio's site on the wooded grounds of the Mayslake Peabody estate proved a mixed blessing the night this production was recorded during the 2013 season. To be sure, no rain fell during the course of the two hour-plus evening, but evening breezes can be seen to set feathers to trembling, fabric to flapping and—that chronic hazard of outdoor theater—portions of speeches wafted away on air-currents. Mostly, though, the close-up videography facilitates an intimacy discouraging the propensity of Yankee patrons to sneer at characters whose accents too easily evoke xenophobic stereotypes. (Director Michael Goldberg and dialect consultant Jason K. Martin are both to be commended for individualizing the regionalisms to reflect the personality and status of the speakers.)

Just as no CD can replicate the actual concert experience, so are couches and laptops doomed to fall short of full pantheistic immersion, but those seeking to enhance their sensory perceptions can always move their television screens to the patio/balcony/back yard, light the citronella candles, and bask in the scent of DEET and warm chardonnay.


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