Brush up your obscure Shakespeare with an energetic Cymbeline at Boscobel

Jupiter predicts the fate of Posthumus (Stephen Michael Spencer). (T. Charles Erickson)

As sure and as welcome a sign of summer as the appearance of lightning bugs after dark, outdoor Shakespeare performances have returned to our fair valley. And in amongst the perennially recycled favorites can occasionally be found a revival of some overlooked nugget of the Bard of Avon’s prodigious oeuvre. The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (HVSF) can typically be relied upon to supply one such rarity each year, alongside something much more familiar and a couple of non-Shakespeare offerings.

For the less ravenous fan, HVSF is providing Much Ado about Nothing this summer. There’s no cause for complaint in that; arguably the wittiest of Shakespeare’s comedies, Much Ado holds up to countless rewatchings. But if you’re hankering for some opportunity to catch one of his plays that you’ve seldom or never seen performed live before, you’re in for a special treat. Cymbeline has opened at the theater tent at Boscobel and will run in repertory through the end of July.

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Though once listed as The Tragedie of Cymbeline, it’s now regarded as an example of Shakespeare’s “late romances” (1610) along with The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale. Comic and tragic elements freely commingle in its narrative. So does just about any other plot idea ever tossed out in a writers’ room brainstorming session, truth be told. There are good reasons why scholars place Cymbeline on their list of usual suspects for works that might have involved a collaborator – not to mention good reasons why it’s not produced very often.

To put it plainly, Cymbeline is a hot mess, pasted together from many sources of inspiration. It’s got plenty of stock Shakespeare characters: a feisty noblewoman disguised as a pageboy, a deluded king, a popinjay suitor, a wrongfully exiled courtier, an ambitious wicked stepmother, jealous rivals, a clever servant who proves most faithful when he disobeys, a righteous woman who loves a cad unworthy of her and not one but two lost heirs to a throne. Familiar plot devices include mistaken identities; international diplomacy that goes awry; a failed seduction scheme morphing into an attempt to sow unwarranted suspicion (here, using a bracelet instead of a handkerchief); nobility of birth inevitably showing itself in uncivilized places; a deathbed confession inspiring royal remorse. There’s a fellow far more scurrilous than Falstaff hiding in a trunk, and even a compelling narrative reason for a decapitated corpse to be dragged around the stage for a while. Did I mention that there are ghosts? And a visitation from Jupiter (a Nance Williamson cameo)? If there’s a Bardian box to be checked, Cymbeline checks it off.

A story as convoluted as this is a challenge to tell lucidly and persuasively. And that’s precisely what makes HVSC’s 2019 production of Cymbeline a must-see: The company, under the direction of Davis McCallum, knocks it out of the park. While not every character’s choices seem wise or motivations plausible, the performances are so on-point that clinging to one’s skepticism feels unjustified. While they don’t have Shakespeare’s loftiest lines to work with, the actors make them sing. Following the twists and turns of the story is not difficult, even if we do sometimes find ourselves musing that these are silly people doing silly things. By the finale, in which some unspeakable acts are forgiven, the tenor of the emotions expressed rises to a level of profundity fully worthy of the author’s gifts.

Speaking of singing, the dancing and musical numbers in this production – incorporating both Shakespeare’s own beloved lament “Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun” and a haunting Appalachian folksong – are first-rate. So is the acting: no surprise with HVSF, but even the students from the Conservatory Company are impressive in their small roles, especially José Gamo and Timiki Salinas as the crypto-princes. Alexandra Templer brings plenty of winsome tomboy energy to elevate the role of the wronged Imogen, who is not normally seen as the most forceful or clever of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing princesses. Sean McNall, reliably solid in any part he’s called upon to play in this company over the years, has juicy fun with Iachimo, a character who combines the dastardly qualities of Othello’s Iago and Measure for Measure’s Angelo.

But the performance that truly stands out in this Cymbeline is a dual role by a newcomer to HVSF: Stephen Michael Spencer is an unstoppable force of nature as he turns on a dime between portraying Posthumus, Imogen’s outcast husband, and Cloten, the queen’s preening son who wants to marry the princess and become Cymbeline’s heir. Costume changes between the roles are minimal; the transformation via voice and body language is instant and complete. Spencer moves with the controlled athleticism of a ballet star; he delivers lines as if born to the stage and – especially as the despicable early-17th-century incel Cloten – he’s funny as all hell. HVSF’s resident crown prince of comedy, Jason O’Connell, had better be looking over his shoulder right now.

If you ever find yourself wishing that your familiarity with the Bard’s works were broader, you couldn’t pick a better introduction to the more obscure recesses of his canon than this production of Cymbeline. It’s immensely fun and gracefully executed. Plus, at Boscobel you get to watch the sun set over the most magnificent bend in the Hudson Highlands. Go early and bring a picnic. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. on July 5, 10, 13, 16, 19, 24 and 27. Note that Cymbeline, unlike this season’s other HVSF offerings, is not running all summer long, so don’t delay in getting your tickets. (Persons with light-sensitive seizure disorders should note also that this production uses strobe lighting in a battle sequence.) Prices range from $10 (obstructed view seating) to $75. To order or for more information, call (845) 265-9575, e-mail boxoffice@hvshakespeare.org or visit http://hvshakespeare.org. Boscobel House and Gardens are located at 1601 Route 9D in Garrison.

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