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_Cymbeline_, Actors Shakespeare Project
Bar Harbor
The venue is depressingly squalid, the production values are almost non-existent, and the material is certainly not Shakespeare's best. But it turns out that none of that is actually required for theatrical magic to happen. The show was really excellent, despite, or perhaps to some extent because of, its limitations.

The text of the play is a mishmash of standard Shakespearean tropes. You've got the true lovers, but a villain is able to convince the guy that his wife was unfaithful; you've got the faithful servant who was wrongly exiled, but remains faithful nonetheless; the girl disguised as a boy; the children separated at birth growing up unaware f their true identity; the evil stepmother queen; the ogre king who doesn't understand his daughter; a small duel and a big battle; funny music, sad music. Things look grim in the middle, but the final scene is right out of Commedia, as the tangles get untangled, the families get reunited, and nobody dies except the most evil characters. Even given their heavy cutting of the text, the tale is baroque and overstuffed.

There were only seven actors, covering about 20 parts. Costumes were plain white, with an accesory belt/sash that could be moved about to help distinguish between different characters. All the actors were also skilled enough to be varying their voice and movement with each character, so there was never any confusion, despite the multiplicity of characters (and disguises). The actors all had good emotional range, enough to *act* well, even above the task of making their parts distinct.

The doubling was well-chosen, often adding a layer of meta-commentary to the characters. For instance, For instance the princess has two suitors, one heroic, one base, both played by the same actor. This helps with a later plot point when the proncess mistakes the corpse of the bad lover for her true love's body. The silliest instance of doubling was the 'character' of the doctor, a walking piece of necessary exposition; he appears at three points in this production to deliver his vital plot point, yet is so devoid of character-level importance that they have him played by a different actor each time! And yet, they exaggerated his vocal and physical mannerisms such that it was stil clear that he was the same person, despite being personated by someone else :-)

The seating was in the round, and very close to the stage. Asides were often directed to specific audience members, face-to-face, which worked well to connect the players and audience. For that matter, those players who weren't on stage *were* audience, sitting off to the side, and visibly reacting as audience members to the action on stage.

But the off-isde actors weren't *just* being audience; they were also being the band and the foley department. The show had truly marvelous sound design. Very few props were physically carried by the on-stage actors; the presence of objects was indicated by mime on-stage combined with off-side sound effects. When someone got a letter, they would 'snap' open the paper (the sound of that being provided by foley), and then the character who wrote the letter would stand up from his off-side chair and recite it. Various characters and situations had audio leitmotifs that went with them: the insidious tinkling music-box of a poison, the jingling of bribe money, the creak of a chest opening (which, as kestrell pointed out, clearly sounded like an *evil* chest)...

They had an interesting approach to stage directions as well. Lacking any scenery (and having trimmed the text some for time), they took a boldly literal method of changing settings. An actor, while moving to his mark, would declaim loudly, "Act Three, Scene One. Britain. A hall in Cymbeline's palace." This not only established setting, but also helped ensure that there was no confusion of characters with all the doubling.

The foley and the literalization both contributed to another aspect, the violence design. Normally, I'm not a fan of abstract, stylized violence, but in the context of a highly-abstracted production, it worked marvelously. There were three particular scenes that stood out to me.

In one early scene, a man slaps a woman, hard. The actors were clearly far enough apart on the stage that there was no question of his blow actually connecting, or even being seen to connect. But her physical reaction was perfectly timed with that blow, as was a cymbal crash from the foley section, giving it all a very visceral impact despite the lack of contact.

Later, there's a fight between a silly (if evil) fop armed with a sword, versus an unarmed but much cooler opponent. This was performed as a duel-by-slide-whistle; apparently sufficiently obnoxious music can be fatal :-)

The high point of the violence was the big battle scene in V.2. In a bold but successful move, they cut *all* the dialogue, leaving nothing but stage directions. These stage directions were incanted from off-side, while most of the cast mimed the action in slow-motion dumb-show. It's a very complicated battle scene, yet was conveyed swiftly, clearly, and movingly.

The production reminded me rather of my all-time-favorite Shakespeare performance, by a group called "Actors from the London Stage", which did similarly small-cast, low-production-values, highly-successful productions.

Perhaps the highest praise I can give this show comes not from myself, a sophisticated long-time Shakespeare geek. There was a small boy in the audience, perhaps ten years old, who remained rapt with attention throughout the whole 2 1/2 hours. *That* says good theater.

Highly Recommended.

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Interestingly, the one time we saw Cymbeline (at the replica Globe, August 2001), it was even more streamlined. Just four actors, wearing, basically, white pyjamas; instead of going off stage, they stood at the back and faced away from the audience. They used walk and manner to distinguish their characters, and did it pretty well; but I don't think there were any sound effects.

We wanted to see something with proper period costume—what's the point of replicating the Globe and then putting people in modern costume?—but the alternative was Hamlet in tuxedos. They were also doing Lear, but not that week, and it was only nominally period; I think they said it was all rough brown tunics or something.

Hey, did you notice that ASP quoted you for their publicity?

Mind you, you are now "Alexx Kestrell."

Actually, they were quoting Kes :-)

So now we have a new catch-phrase: "Media-Twin powers -- Activate!"

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