American Players Theatre: William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline! But why isn’t it called Imogen?

Why isn’t it called Imogen is what I asked my wife as we were discussing the play that we had just seen while walking down the hill from the American Players Theatre, Hill Theatre.

And the next morning as I am reading her Director’s Notes in the playbill, I see that director Marti Lyons asks in her very first paragraph, “And why, oh why, isn’t it called Imogen?”

Indeed.

This presentation is an adaptation by director Marti Lyons and collaborator Sara Becker from an earlier adaptation by Henry Woronicz. I am not familiar with Mr. Woronicz’s adaptation so I don’t know how much of the original was kept or condensed or where he placed his focus on the play. But in Ms. Lyons’ and Ms. Becker’s adaptation, aimed at featuring an all woman cast, it makes sense the Imogen would be the stand out character in Cymbeline. I will have to revisit the original soon and I don’t remember much of it since studying Shakespeare in college some fifty years ago.

Full cast of Cymbeline, APT 2021. Cymbeline 2021. Photo by Liz Lauren and courtesy of the American Players Theatre.

So, Imogen! Played by Melisa Pereyra presents us with a heroine who suffers it all with grace assuredly, but composure and determination unexpected even in Shakespeare. And Ms. Pereyra moves effortless from loving spouse of Posthumus, to respectful but resistant daughter of King Cymbeline, to tolerant (?) but dismissive daughter to her step-mother, the Queen, to scornful and disdaining of the false suitor Iachimo and her step-brother Cloten, and finally when disguised as a man, being every ounce a page and later a warrior. At every step in the various transitions, we see Ms. Pereyra assume her new role and we can’t but be on her side every moment of the way. One of the highlight roles and performances this season.

Colleen Madden as Posthumus, Melisa Pereyra as Imogen, Cymbeline 2021. Photo by Liz Lauren and courtesy of the American Players Theatre.

An equally amazing role and nearly equally as trying, finds Elizabeth Ledo playing Pisanio, a page who finds himself in service to any number of people. Pisanio is the underdog hero who doesn’t get enough credit in the play, even in the resolution, and certainly not from those of us in the audience. But he is the one person amongst the protagonists who remains constant in his person and true to his responsibilities even when commanded by his master, Posthumus, to assassinate his mistress, Imogen. And Ms. Ledo easily portrays his confusion around mixed messages and the misunderstandings compared to reality but finds a way to protect those around him and make things right in the end.

Melisa Pereyra as Imogen, Elizabeth Leto as Pisanio, Cymbeline 2021. Photo by Liz Lauren and courtesy of the American Players Theatre.

One other actor that I would like to compliment is Gina Daniels! What a magnificent transformation from manipulating Queen to an honorable and loyal Belarius, a former soldier to the King but a woodsman in exile when we first meet him. Although a number of other actors played dual roles, I don’t think the other characters are quite as diametrically opposed as the Queen and Belarius.

Gena Daniels as the Queen. Cymbeline 2021. Photo by Liz Lauren and courtesy of the American Players Theatre.

Any number of writers including Marti Lyons wonder if Cymbeline is a tragedy, comedy, or history play. Although based on historical characters and maybe events, if this were a modern play it would be historical fiction. I leaned toward a tragedy at first since two major characters die, one quite violently, but they aren’t any of the characters that we feel positive about. A comedy?? Well yes, there are some very funny parts of the play and they are often enough that we feel good laughing out loud. So I guess we fall into a more recent genre of tragicomedy!

But we haven’t broached the all women casting yet. Is turn about fair play since men played all of the roles at The Globe? Well it adds to the comedy (quite intentionally). And it certainly brings to the fore the different place in society to which women have often be relegated to by men.

But it is fun to watch Colleen Madden as the Queen’s son Cloten grab her crotch while making risque comments or strut and preen like an over confident rooster. Or Sarah Day portray Cymbeline as a distracted overly emotional old man who is easily manipulated by his new Queen. And of course, Gina Daniels acting as the manipulative Queen! And to have many of the lines about women’s place in society delivered by women playing the male roles was honestly refreshing.

And one of the biggest laughs in the play is when Melisa Pereyra reappears as Imogen disguised as a male page and says (and I paraphrase here); it seems hard to be a man and it seems so tedious.

I imagine some this was intentional as a result of both casting all women and in adapting the play. Some of the lines sounded particularly contemporary rather than the archaic language of The Bard. Bravo to all!

The Stage. Cymbeline 2021. Photo by Liz Lauren and courtesy of the American Players Theatre.

And my hats off to director Marti Lyons who staged this perfectly. It was amazing as one group finished their scene, how the next group just seemed to appear to present us with the next. And the simple but elegant stage helped to make that flow possible. The fact that it seemed so effortless and natural tells me that Ms. Lyons’ suffered over the staging. And thanks to Stage Manager Evelyn Matten and the whole stage crew for making it happen! And being forewarned that the actors would be using the aisles and that they were ‘armed’, I kept my hands and head in my seat!

Cymbeline runs through Septemer 11, 2021 and you can see it in person or subscribe to the AT HOME streaming option. Here is the link to the Cymbeline info at APT! Run time: 2 hours 45 minutes including one 20-minute intermission

Post Script added 8/23/21: This adaptation drops at least a half dozen characters from Shakespeare’s original Dramatis Personae. Other than shrinking the plays run time, my feeling is it helps to focus the story and help keep a 21st C audience engaged.