This fall, SF Shakes and Cal Shakes bring “Free Shakespeare in the Park” to Orinda’s Bruns Amphitheater with their enchanting performance of “Cymbeline.” In an explosion of theatrical brilliance, this production delves deep into complex layers of love, betrayal and redemption set against a backdrop of royal courts and lush forests in Ancient Britain.
One of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, “Cymbeline” follows the tumultuous journey of Princess Imogen (Shakoria Davis), whose lover Posthumus (Deanalís Arocho Resto) has been banished by her father — King Cymbeline (Ron Chapman) — after he learns of their secret marriage. While the lovers vow their loyalty to one another, an astounding series of misadventures and mortal peril relentlessly test that devotion.
Tragedy strikes quickly in “Cymbeline.” Audiences can only briefly savor Imogen and Posthumus’ love before they’re torn apart. Everything goes awry and audiences sample a variety of Shakespeare’s favored tropes in this play of blended genres, a complicated and ambiguous fusion that has earned it the title of “problem play” by some in Shakespeare studies.
Prince Cloten (Nathaniel Andalis) convinces Posthumus that he has taken Imogen to bed, sending him into a murderous rage. The conniving queen (Catherine Luedtke) plots to take more power in the royal court. Yet this is only the beginning of the misadventures of “Cymbeline.”
With phenomenal performances all around, it’s difficult to decide who to praise first — but Davis’ Imogen is truly a force to be reckoned with. She is able to strike a balance between the girlish innocence of a young lover and the quick-witted, resourceful young woman the audience later becomes familiar with. Davis deftly navigates this evolution, as Imogen sheds her ethereal white and gold wardrobe for the simple garb of a man in her quest for justice and the truth.
SF Shakes’ production stands out due to its reimagining of Posthumus as a young trans man, portrayed by the talented queer performer Resto. On a journey of self-discovery and acceptance, Posthumus has only recently come out as a trans man. This storyline progresses brilliantly on stage and invites audiences to see Posthumus and Imogen’s trajectory in a different, less patriarchal light — and endows Posthumus’ character with motivations separate from this traditionalist paradigm.
Like falling dominoes, the play’s tragedy is compounding. Though it embraces a level of comedy, this does not negate the misfortune that sweeps over the stage. A bottle full of a sleeping potion taken at the wrong time by the wrong person, erroneous pronouncements of death and insidious conspiracies haunt the characters as they struggle to parse truth.
The choreography in this production is also a highlight, and nowhere is this more evident than in the climactic final battle. With tensions soaring, the entire cast descends onto the stage. As they move with precision and determination, their seamless coordination becomes especially captivating in this critical moment. Britain, not only overcome with strife in its royal court but with the warring nation of Rome, must fend off Rome’s mighty warriors as they encroach on their territory. As the Britons emerge victorious, this battle is the catalyst for a long series of confessions that finally clears up the uncertainty that lurks among all parties of “Cymbeline.”
“Cymbeline” finds strength in its most poignant theme — that miracles are not necessarily a gift from the gods, but ones that we create within ourselves, like the reconciliation of lovers and children and parents. These miracles are not divine intervention but instead the kindness and virtue of people’s hearts. Amidst the turmoil and deception prevalent in the script, SF Shakes and Cal Shakes illuminate the enduring power of love, redemption and the human spirit in this one-of-a-kind performance.
As the sun sets on Bruns Amphitheater, the cast of “Cymbeline” rejoices at the miracles that granted them a happy ending. “Cymbeline” may be considered by some as one of Shakespeare’s problematic plays, but SF Shakes and Cal Shakes had no problem putting on a stunning performance.