One of Shakespeare’s last plays, “Cymbeline” is performed infrequently, and isn’t considered one of his best. Critic Harold Bloom thought it was partly a Shakespearean self-parody; “many of his prior plays and characters are mocked by it.” There’s cross-dressing, a sleeping potion that feigns death, star-crossed lovers and long-lost relatives hiding in the woods. It’s like the bard put his favorite plot elements into a velvet cap, shook them up and pulled out a handful to attach to an unlikely story of ancient Britain.
But this problem play is a favorite of Midsommer Flight director Beth Wolf. She had wanted to do it back in 2020, but it was canceled due to the pandemic. Midsommer’s new production, playing in Chicago parks through August 13, shows that in the right hands “Cymbeline” is funny, compelling and surprisingly touching. It is a play about forgiveness and overcoming pride, which makes it feel right for this point in history.
The plot is tortuous. Cymbeline (the stately Barry Irving) is the Roman Empire’s vassal king of Britain. His two sons went mysteriously missing years ago, and his stepson Cloten is a fool. Cymbeline’s scheming wife (played with juicy malice by Talia Langman) wants Cloten to marry Cymbeline’s daughter, Imogen, and take the throne. But Imogen secretly marries Posthumus, a member of the court. Another schemer, Iachimo (Shane Novoa Rhoades) makes a bet with Posthumus that he can catch Imogen in infidelity, and plays a nasty trick to make her seem false.
As with all Midsommer’s in-the-park productions, this play is full of energy, with big gestures, good swordplay, and wonderful singing. Despite the plot twists and the intricacy of the language, the show is accessible and easy to follow. A standout in the cast is John Drea as Cloten, who is loudly, swaggeringly, preposterously dim. He is reminiscent of the young Kevin Kline in “A Fish Called Wanda,” or Donald Trump, Jr. Ashley Graham makes a valiant Imogen, and Keenan Odenkirk managed the tough job of making the proud and sexist Posthumus sympathetic. Also excellent are Bradley Halverson as Pisanio, a carrier of potions and costume changes, and Jillian Leff as Cornelius, a nervous court physician.
The play’s most famous speech, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” was sung rather than spoken, first by one performer, and then in three-part harmony, which was a smart way to handle it. This was especially true during performances last weekend in Gross Park, which is under an O’Hare International Airport flight path. These horses with wings (to borrow Imogen’s expression) muffled several speeches. Midsommer should consider a different spot for its six-park rotation next year.
Watching “Cymbeline,” I recalled a very different production last spring of “The Comedy of Errors” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. There was no traffic noise, and the well-dressed opening-night audience included former Mayor Richard M. Daley. A big part of the show was not Shakespeare at all, but a “framing play” about a group of 1940s actors making a movie. It was all good fun, with lovely sets and costumes and fine acting. But this simpler Midsommer production offers better Shakespeare. Under the airplane noise, the language was beautiful, and delivered with heart. Big theaters take note—with Shakespeare, the play has to be more important than the gimmicks. Midsommer remembers that.
“Cymbeline” by Midsommer Flight, performed at Kelvyn Park, 4438 West Wrightwood, July 21-23; Harold Washington Park, 5200 South Hyde Park, July 28-30; Lincoln Park, 2045 North Lincoln Park West, August 4-6; and Touhy Park, 7348 North Paulina, August 11-13.