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Shakespeare Ensemble plays sprightly Cymbeline

CYMBELINE

The MIT Shakespeare Ensemble.

Reviewed at dress rehearsal.

La Sala de Puerto Rico,

March 14-17 and March 21-23, 8 pm.

By DEBORAH A. LEVINSON

CYMBELINE is perhaps one of Shakespeare's less well-known plays. Although the Folio of 1623 classified it as a tragedy, it has since been reclassified as a romance, leaving it in the same company as The Tempest and The Winter's Tale.

Yet Cymbeline isn't just the usual Shakespeare tale of two star-crossed lovers. It's also the story of a well-intentioned king of Britain, his evil, scheming wife, his long-lost children, and a war between Britain and the Roman Empire.

It's quite a lot for one play, but nothing unusual for Shakespeare. The play opens with King Cymbeline's daughter, Imogen (Maya B. Eliot G), being torn away from her husband, Posthumous (Brecht Isbell '91). Neither Cymbeline (Greg Swieringa '91) nor his queen (Maria Cheryl S. Casquejo '91) approve of Imogen's marriage to Posthumous, a commoner brought up in court, and so they exile him to Rome.

Once in Rome, Posthumous falls in with the idle gentry, who challenge him on his claims of his wife's chastity. One of the noblemen, Iachimo (Ryun Yu '93), bets Posthumous that he can seduce Imogen, and so the games begin.

Iachimo manages, through various subterfuges, to convince Posthumous that Imogen has indeed been unfaithful. Enraged, Posthumous delivers a thoroughly sexist speech on the deceitfulness of women, and instructs his servant, Pisanio (Christopher A. Crowley G) to kill Imogen.

Eliot is wonderful as Imogen, the very essence of purity and innocence. She has fully developed her character. When Iachimo lies to her, telling her that Posthumous has cheated on her, her pain is palpable. The only fault in her performance was that she didn't react strongly enough when confronted with the headless body she believes is Posthumous. A character who "fears the sword" as Imogen does should recoil instantly at the sight of a dead body; it took Eliot several minutes to react.

Yu's Iachimo, however, practically steals the show. He is delectably slimy, the kind of character you love to hate. His villain is full of energy, delighting in Posthumous' pain at learning that Imogen has been unfaithful.

In the wrong hands, the character of Posthumous could be noble to the point of superciliousness. Isbell remains in control, showing tenderness in his scenes with Eliot, honor among the sneering Roman playboys, and passion as he defends Britain from the Roman invasion.

The cast as a whole is excellent, and each player has something to recommend him or her. Casquejo is sly and seductive as the evil stepmother queen; Swearinga is gruff but loving as Cymbeline; Harry Teplitz '91, who plays the queen's obnoxious son, Cloton, brings a very funny, over-the-top recklessness to his character.

Be warned: Cymbeline's plot starts out complicated, and it only gets more convoluted as the play goes on. For example, it may take you a while to figure out that woodswoman Belaria (Lindasusan Ulrich '91) was a courtier in Cymbeline's castle, and that she did not bear her two daughters, Guideria (Andrea Leszek '91) and Arviraga (Natalya Eliashberg '93), but rather stole them from Cymbeline. Also, the Shakespeare Ensemble's small size forces them to cast the same actors in multiple roles, which will cause you momentary confusion if you're not ready for it.

The Ensemble has taken some liberties with the play, but they all work well. They perform in (mostly) modern dress, make references to corporations like IBM and Citibank, and use computers and cellular phones to coordinate a war. William Fregosi's set -- two curving staircases framing a central stage area -- is innovative and versatile, serving alternately as Rome, Cymbeline's castle in Britain, Imogen's bedroom, and a cave in rural Wales.

There were a few lines spoken haltingly and some awkward blocking and scene changes, but these can be chalked up to the dress rehearsal, and will probably be gone by opening night. If you would like the chance to see a rarely performed Shakespeare play rendered with precision, Cymbeline is not to be missed.