SHAKESPEARE IN THE RAW Acorn’s leather-enhanced Bardic tale.
When the servant Pisania (April Singley) enters to herald the opening iambs of Cymbeline, her Elizabethan diction is bracingly offset by her skintight black vinyl and fishnets. This vampy juxtaposition of traditional and fetish is just one of many fun contrasts in Acorn Productions' staging of this ridiculous and rarely performed little Shakespearean number, a comedy that runs in repertory with Antony and Cleopatra and Acorn Teen Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors at the Riverbank Shakespeare Festival, in Westbrook's Riverbank Park, through May 22. I recently sat in on a dress rehearsal.
The storyline of Cymbeline, though perhaps lesser known than Shakespeare's other works, nevertheless contains a junk drawer's worth of his familiar devices. In a nutshell: Imogen (Julia Reddy), Princess and daughter of the title King of Britain (Paul Haley), is in mutual love with Posthumus Leonato (Keith Anctil), but the marriage is opposed and Posthumus banished because he is of ignoble birth, and because the evil Queen (Patricia Mew) is conspiring to marry off her own son by a previous marriage (Eric Worthley) to Imogen, that he may succeed to the throne. A new complication comes when, during Posthumus's exile, his drinking buddy Iachimo (Christopher Hoffman) bets him against Imogen's chastity, and then sets off to game the deal. The resulting proceedings, suffice it to say, include but are not limited to misappropriated love tokens, gender-bending, a death-simulating potion, a severed head and a headless (and thus easily mistaken) corpse, a non-sequitur visit from the god Jupiter (Paul Haley again, in a cameo you will have to see to believe), and dramatic ironies involving a man-sized chest.
There is perhaps no other way to play all this than to camp it up. And so director Michael Levine does, with brazenly haphazard juxtapositions of time, style, and taste. In addition to our dominatrix Pisania, for example, we have Posthumus garbed in Flintstones-meets-Gladiator fashion, the lovely Imogen looking like she stepped out of Kennedy's Camelot in white and pearls, and the black-tressed Queen looking more than a little like Vampira with a rhinestone crown.
Acting styles vary nearly as widely (and could in fact probably push the envelope even more), hamming up the Bard's finely wrought iambs (and I must say that some of the Bard's phrasings here are already screen-ready for B-grade porn, such as Posthumus's bracelet described as a "manacle of love"). As taut plot points are punctuated with primal drumming on water jugs, Singley vamps her laconic cloak-and-dagger glares, Mew indulges in archetypal evil laughs, Worthley stomps around pouting, and Maggie Gish makes a wacky schoolmarm of a dispensing physician. But Anctil and Reddy, as the lovers, play it straight. In fact, Reddy acts Imogen with an astonishing sensitivity I found it hard to look away from, especially considering the general absurdity of the context — watching her navigate the princess's trials is like watching clear water find its way over rough terrain.