Shakespeare Festival's Cymbeline a joyful way to celebrate the return of live performance

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I’ve had the same leather case for years. It’s a battered relic: creased and scuffed, with a faded ‘89 Jazz Fest sticker. The case has accompanied me to every show I’ve reviewed over three decades.

Since March of 2020, it’s been sitting half-forgotten under my desk. This week the case and I (and my wife) went on our first theatre outing since COVID. We saw Cymbeline, staged by the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival. Like the first flowers of spring, this plucky little production is a welcome sign that live theatre is once again blooming in our city.

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Only a few weeks ago, director Karen Lee Pickett was uncertain whether her show would go on. Cymbeline was in rehearsals but “honestly I expected we’d have to cancel because of the COVID-19 situation.” To her delight, the province announced outdoor theatre shows were being allowed.

The performance I saw was at Horticultural Centre of the Pacific in Saanich, where it continues to July 15. Cymbeline concludes its run at Esquimalt’s Memorial Park July 16 to 18. The show, with both professional and community actors, is far from perfect. Yet the overall experience is charming and celebratory.

It’s a bare-bones effort with few props or set pieces. The costumes have a period feel — tail coats worn by some actors suggest the 18th century. Villainous Iachimo hides in a crude wooden box in order to spy on Princess Imogen. King Cymbeline’s exiled sons live in a “cave” that looks more like a pup tent than a subterranean hideout. On the night I saw it, the prop was briefly knocked over by a gust of wind.

There’s no set — but then, who needs one at the Horticultural Centre of the Pacific, a hillside garden overflowing with roses, columbine, nasturtiums, forget-me-nots, calendula and mallow? A socially distanced audience of 50 sat in a field facing a grand stone staircase flanked by curving hedges. As we watched, birds sang and the sun eased into the horizon.

Infrequently performed, Cymbeline’s popularity waned after the 18th century. It’s one of Shakespeare’s late plays — many believe it doesn’t measure up to his masterpieces. Still, it’s entertaining enough, even if it feels like the Bard scooped up his theatrical leftovers and plopped them into a stir-fry.

The plot elements have a ring of familiarity. Iachimo (played with earthy verve by Cam Culham) concocts an Iago-like deception to convince Posthumus, Imogen’s husband, of his wife’s supposed unfaithfulness. Imogen flees the court dressed as a boy, a gender swap that recalls As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, etc. Just like Juliet, she takes a drug that makes it appear she has died. And her stepmother, the Queen, is a Lady MacBeth-style baddie.

This is one of Shakespeare’s longest works. Wisely, Pickett has chopped the script to a brisk hour and 45 minutes — excising anything unrelated to the essential plot and simplifying the language as well.

While dramatic elements are retained, the show is played for laughs whenever possible. Doltish Cloten (rhymes with “rotten”) admires his face using a hand-held mirror and even the blade of his sword. A ping-pong game has been inserted into the action. Exiled cave-dwellers Guiderius and Arviragus — quite nicely played by Aidan Guerreiro and Grace Fedorchuk — strut about like SNL’s Hans and Franz (the crowd laughed when Guerreiro held up Cloten’s severed head like a prize pumpkin).

The play’s denouement is an extended tell-don’t-show extravaganza in which the characters explain what the heck’s been happening for the previous 90 minutes. It’s done amusingly — at the end the cast disco-dances to the Jackson Five’s I Want You Back.

The music in Cymbeline is a particular strength. The “funeral” song for Imogen was a delight. Indeed, all the musical interludes were well done (Sarah Pitman’s tin whistle playing was lovely).

Danica Charlie makes Imogen jolly and engaging, although the complexities of the character could be more fully explored. Nathaniel Exley, declaiming so strongly his voice echoed in the hills, did yeoman’s work in tackling two roles: Cloten and Posthumus.

In this cast of varying abilities, everyone projected well and seemed to be having fun, something that translated to the audience. All in all this Cymbeline is an enjoyable and joyful way to celebrate the return of live performance in Victoria.

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