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“Have you ever loved someone?” “Have you ever loved someone against your parents’ wishes?” With these audience warm-ups and some trickier questions (“Has the Roman god Jupiter ever appeared to you in a dream?”), Delaware Shakespeare opened its Community Tour production of Cymbeline on October 4, 2023.
Cymbeline defies classification. It’s uncertain when Shakespeare actually wrote it. Listed as a tragedy in the First Folio (the printed version of Shakespeare’s works published shortly after his death), it’s also been labeled a comedy and a romance. Its complex story is rife with mistaken identities, thwarted love, a Roman invasion, and fairy-tale elements: princess, evil queen, loyal knight, reunited siblings, soothsayers, and even ghosts.
Following right along
Here, as in many productions (though there aren’t all that many; Cymbeline is tricky to produce), six Del Shakes actors play all 20 roles. Most times, characters are distinguished by Asaki Kuruma’s clever costume pieces, but sometimes, the actors simply announce who they are. Set in Britain in the time of the Roman empire, the play tells of King Cymbeline (Bob Weick), whose wife has died. His two sons were stolen 20 years before, but his beautiful daughter Imogen (Cassandra Alexander) lives with the king and his second wife, a wicked stepmother simply called “Queen” (Minou Pourshariati), and her ineffectual son Cloten (Weick again).
King Cymbeline wants Imogen to marry Cloten to assure the royal line continues, but her father is enraged to find that she’s already secretly married to virtuous commoner Posthumus Leonatus (Nathan Alford-Tate), who is banished. As the lovers exchange a ring and a bracelet and vow to be faithful, Posthumus, accompanied by long-suffering servant Pisanio (Emily Schuman), swiftly lands (fairytale-like) in darkest Italy.
There, he makes an unfortunate wager with Iachimo (Zach Valdez), a devious Roman soldier who swears he can seduce virtuous Imogen and gain her bracelet, which he does through trickery. There are many more plot complications, including a mistaken death, a beheading, and a deus ex machina moment with an actual deus ex machina. But thanks to this versatile, committed, clear-headed, and often funny cast, the audience follows right along.
Not meant for theaters
There are 13 free tour performances. Most are open to the public, with two ticketed shows at the end of the run. Each tour performance is very different, a reason to see it more than once. I went to two Delaware locations: Hope Center in Newark (a former hotel converted to a temporary emergency shelter) and Christina Cultural Arts Center (a well-known community arts hub on Wilmington’s burgeoning Market Street).
The Christina audience of students, children, and adults is accustomed to performances and welcomed the actors with glee. At the Hope Center (the show’s first tour stop), dinner was being served in the partitioned space next door, and the audience was a bit more uncertain about what was coming. But despite all distractions—and there are always distractions at tour performances—the actors were able to totally engage the room. And these shows are always presented in a room: never in a theater, but in a cafeteria, a school gym, a conference room, or wherever Del Shakes can create a rectangle of open space surrounded on four sides by chairs.
Adventurous, accomplished work
Under David Stradley’s artistic direction, the company has developed a successful Community Tour modality. Actors mill around talking to arriving spectators (probably what happened at Shakespeare’s Globe as well), and they are always in sight of the audience, even when changing characters and costumes. There are minimal set pieces; here, Miguel Horn’s simple, effective wooden cubes and slabs. Fights are staged with clever, gleeful choreography by Ashley SK Davis; the Britons’ battle with the Romans is a dance-off. There’s always live music; here, by multi-instrumentalist/composer Jordan McCree on electronic keyboard, drums, percussion, and other things, along with pre-recorded sounds and some pretty accomplished whistling.
Mounting this kind of production requires a director with an appetite for adventurous investigation and close character work, and, undaunted by the play’s complexity and conundrums, Tai Verley guided her company with assurance, verve, and a certain amount of sass. Her joyous interpretation inspired in these actors an ease with one another and a sense of fun, coupled with impeccable handling of the language. Any ensemble reflects its director in many ways, and this company’s camaraderie and esprit easily spilled out over the stage’s taped-out boundaries—no footlights in the Community Tour.
Shakespeare lovers of all ages
As someone who majored in Shakespeare, I’m always eager to see what Del Shakes pulls out of its theatrical hat. It makes these tales interesting to people like me who’ve seen a lot of Shakespeare but also accessible to audiences of all ages, including anyone new to theater. Though situations may be embellished or enlivened, Community Tour actors—and this group is exceptionally fine—remain within the Bard’s dramaturgy, convincingly peopling the work. Text is always Shakespeare’s text, spoken here with assurance and with often vibrantly colored but perfectly investigated interpretations.
Perhaps the most telling critique came from one young girl at the Hope Center performance who looked about 10. Visibly enthralled, she was with her mother and a younger sibling, and they left midway. (Maybe the youngster had to get to bed.) But a short while later, she returned, accompanied by a staff member. She clearly had been crying; it was obvious that she had badly wanted to remain. Joyous to return, she cheered on the actors and joined in enthusiastically when audience participation was solicited.
After the show, she stayed, talking to the company about what they could have improved (some of their dancing, it seems, did not meet her standards) and sharing her favorite parts of the show. Her imagination was ignited, exactly what theater is supposed to do. It was quite a moving tribute.
What, When, Where
Cymbeline. By William Shakespeare, directed by Tai Verley. Through October 22, 2023. Free for the majority of performances at various locations. Ticketed performances are Saturday, October 21 (Gala pricing), and Sunday, October 22 ($25; $20 for students), at OperaDelaware Studios, 4 S Poplar Street, Wilmington. (302) 468-4890 or delshakes.org.
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