Online-Theater Review: ‘Cymbeline: A Folk Tale With Music’

Stream Shakespeare’s backwoods ‘Cymbeline’
May 30, 2020 Updated: May 30, 2020

One of Shakespeare’s last plays, “Cymbeline” is considered to be one of his more problematic works. That’s because it features bizarre events, confusing actions, and inexplicable motivations. It has so many twists and turns that it’s not always easy to follow, which is why it’s rarely produced. But transformed into “Cymbeline: A Folk Tale With Music,” it’s a charming romp of a show.

Indeed, that’s what the First Folio Theatre’s executive director David Rice did. His folksy fable adaptation of “Cymbeline” is placed in Civil War Appalachia, accompanied by rollicking original bluegrass and gospel music composed by Michael Keefe with lyrics by Rice.

The show became a big hit when it premiered at First Folio in an outdoor staging at Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook, Illinois, in 2013, winning Joseph Jefferson awards for Best Adaptation and Original Music for Rice and Keefe.

The theater recorded a live performance of the production and is now offering an online streaming Vimeo video recording of it from June 3–14. Although online viewing is not quite the same as sitting in the open air by candlelight under the stars, a little imagination can go a long way. Throw a blanket on the living room floor, prepare a picnic dinner, dim the lights, open a bottle of wine, and be transported to another time and another place.

The Story

In the original Shakespeare play, a king is married to a nasty queen, a feisty heroine fights for love, mistaken identities abound, and a magic potion creates havoc. First Folio remains faithful to those aspects of Shakespeare’s classic but spins the story with important differences.

Shakespeare’s original begins with the King of Britain opposing the marriage of his daughter, Imogen, to Posthumus, who makes a big mistake in mentioning to the evil Iachimo her faithfulness. Iachimo, in turn, brags that he can seduce her. Posthumus becomes so jealous that he wants to kill Imogen. She disguises herself as a man and runs away, where she discovers brothers she never knew she had.

The transformed version, elegantly directed by Michael Goldberg, is presented with a wooden-planked cabin centerstage, surrounded by trees and green shrubbery (designed by Angela Weber Miller). Evoking a backwoods atmosphere, it all looks very country. And when members of the cast, dressed in period garb (by Rachel Lambert), begin to strum their banjos, pick their guitars, and sweep the strings of their fiddles, it feels as though one is taking part in a knee-slapping, toe-tapping hoedown.

Set in 1863 in West Virginia where mountain men rule, it begins as a yarn spinner (wonderful Ron Keaton) of the backwoods community opens a big book and narrates the fantasy within. He tells how Cymbeline (a fine portrayal by John Milewski), the patriarch of a frontier community, has aligned himself with the Southern rebels and hates paying taxes to the Yankee North.  His daughter Imogen (an engaging portrayal by Kate McDermott) is in love with Posthumus (a nice turn by Matthew Keffer), but her cruel stepmother (a compelling Lia Mortensen) wants Imogen to instead marry her frivolous son Cloten (Andrew Behling).

Cymbeline 2 Imogen and Family
(L–R) Princess Imogen (Kate McDermott) and the man she wants to marry, Posthumus (Matthew Keffer); her cruel stepmother (Lia Mortensen); her father, King Cymbeline (John Milewski); and Cloten, her stepbrother (Andrew Behling). (D. Rice)

The villainous Iachimo (an intense James Earl Jones II) makes a bet with Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen. (The scene in which he sneaks into Imogen’s bedroom is one of the show’s highlights.) Posthumus goes crazy with jealousy. To save her life, Imogen disguises herself and runs away to the hills, where she meets Morgan (Keaton) and two brothers (Ryan Czerwonko and Tyler Rich) she never knew she had.

Cymbeline -Imogen and the Boys
Princess Imogen, disguised as a boy (Kate McDermott, kneeling), finds her lost brothers (Ryan Czerwonko, L and Tyler Rich, far R), with Morgan (Ronald Keaton). (D. Rice)

In the end, there’s forgiveness and restoration, and everything ends up happily ever after:

Posthumus and Imogen get back together, Cymbeline pays his taxes and is reunited with his two sons, and Iachimo gets his due. (Everything is joyful except for Cloten who ends up losing his head.) It’s a win-win for almost everyone, especially for those who watch the video.

What is especially appealing about the video is its high technical quality, featuring sharp closeups of the performers with great lighting by Michael McNamara so that you can clearly see the expressions on the actors’ faces and hear every word due to perfect acoustics, courtesy of sound designer Christopher Kriz.

In David Rice’s “Cymbeline,” it is easy to connect the dots. And while Shakespeare’s dialogue is all there, it’s delivered with a twang. Shakespeare has never been so earthy and so much fun.

‘Cymbeline: A Folk Tale With Music’
Tickets: FirstFolio.org
Available: June 3–14

As an arts writer and movie/theater/opera critic, Betty Mohr has been published in the Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Australian, The Dramatist, the SouthtownStar, the Post Tribune, The Herald News, The Globe and Mail in Toronto, and other publications.