Cymbeline is tonally ambiguous, dramaturgically elusive. This is no weakness of Shakespeare’s so-called tragedy, but it stands out in being one that ends in reunions and discoveries instead of wars and death while featuring beheaded characters and disguised lovers. It’s no wonder, then, that critics have long debated whether Cymbeline is drama, romance, comedy, or something in between. Perhaps Shakespeare was pushing genres out and contemporary storytelling, with its mix of laughter and catharsis, forward. Regardless of category, Stay Awake! Theatre’s production of Cymbeline at The Brick (575 Metropolitan Ave.) in Williamsburg is firm in its footing thanks to its minimalist approach and rather strong performances.
As part of Shakespeare in the Theater (as opposed to a park, or online, or wherever else Bill can be staged), The Brick’s festival is low on frills and high on quantity — more than 30 performances by various small-scale companies span the month-long festival ending August 7. Stay Awake! tackles its tougher assignment by bringing us a solid Cymbeline, Shakespeare’s lesser-known, tightly woven tragicomedy.
Meet Imogen and Posthumus, devout lovers who open the show with some fiery sexposition. Amanda Vilanova and Curt James are radiant as the childhood friends-turned-romantics who are equally impressive when reduced to their lonesome and purposeless shells after the antics of a certain Italian nearly unhinge them.
That Italian would be the smarmy and splashy Iachimo, played with mesmerizingly mixed guile and flamboyance by Jeremy Brena. Posthumous comes to meet said slime ball when Cymbeline (an authoritative, magnetic Beethoven Oden) becomes outraged by his daughter’s clandestine wedding and banishes Posthumus to Italy.
From there, the plot gets hairier. Iachimo drifts to the background (a shame, given Brena’s standout performance) after tricking Posthumus into thinking he slept with Imogen. The action turns — with a deft pace outlined by director Jeannie-Marie Brown, despite the show’s two-hour, intermission-less duration — to mountaineers who are more than they seem, a crafty queen, and another ill-fated lord enslaved to Imogen’s grace and beauty. And the splendid Vilanova is deserving of all her characters’ attention — she plays the daughter of a king with class, vitality, and nuance when she eventually masquerades as a boy.
And to keep all these hijinks straight, the loyal Pisanio acts as the interlacing messenger and the audience’s moral compass. Played with a disarming smile by Adam Huff, this Pisanio ascends above the archetypal servant by knowing when to listen to Imogen and when not to, and knowing how to just straddle the line between rebellion and fidelity.
A final shout out needs to be awarded to Anna Ishida, who pops on and off the stage as a neurotic servant, seasoned diplomat, and occasional narrator. Ishida did lovely work in the recent ACT/Guthrie productions of Anne Washburn’s cerebral and spooky Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, and it’s good to see her on a Brooklyn stage. Here’s to more appearances.
For one of Shakespeare’s more divisive works, Cymbeline is saved by its toothsome performances and strong direction. (Brown continually makes playful use of the theater’s intimate space.) Certain aspects of the show — most notable, poorly executed sound effects — detract from the piece, but this is Shakespeare. It is the story we come to see, and it is the story Stay Awake! Theatre delivers.
Cymbeline runs until July 23. Other Shakespeare In The Theater offerings you can catch before the fest ends are: Antony & Cleopatra, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Hamlet, or I shall Mourn The Rivers, Hummingbird, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Nights Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo & Juliet, The Tempest, This England: The Complete Kings, and The Winter’s Tale. Check out their site for show times and info.
The Brick | 575 Metropolitan Ave. | Williamsburg