Theater: Shakespeare with a twist

MSC takes liberties with 'Cymbeline'

by Charles Brousse

When is a play by Shakespeare not a “Shakespeare play?”

That issue may trouble some who trek out to Dominican University’s leafy Forest Meadows Amphitheatre to witness Marin Shakespeare Company’s production of Cymbeline, the opening presentation of its three-play 2015 summer season. It all depends on expectations.

Even genius playwrights have their off-days. Not everything that Shakespeare wrote is golden, and Cymbeline (circa 1611), a product of his final years, is undeniably of far lesser quality than the works that gained him international recognition. “Convoluted” is the word usually used to describe its plot, but that’s an understatement. The setting is ancient Britain, a few dozen years after the Roman invasion. Well-meaning but ineffectual King Cymbeline (Paul Abbott) has a pair of crises on his hands. On the national level, a refusal to pay financial tribute to his country’s occupiers has led them to threaten an attack. At court, his manipulative second wife, the Queen (Lee Fitzpatrick), has persuaded him to marry off his daughter Imogen (Stella Heath) to her narcissistic son Cloten (Thomas Gorrebeeck) so that he can inherit the throne.

Before that can happen, however, Imogen secretly weds Posthumus (Thomas Gorrebeeck again, double-cast), her longtime love, an admirable young man whom the King raised in his household after his own two sons disappeared during the Roman invasion. After Posthumus is banished from the kingdom, the Queen’s strategy is to force Imogen to divorce him. Meeting resistance, she then purchases what she thinks are poison pills from Cornelius (Debi Durst), the court physician, and, using the excuse that they are for medical use, prevails upon Pisanio (Jed Parsario), a servant left behind by Posthumus, to deliver them to Imogen in hopes that her death will clear the way for Cloten.

What I have described is the main narrative thread, but at this point all kinds of subplots are introduced. Some are farcical, others ugly—like the beheading of Cloten by one of the King’s lost sons, who had been raised in the forest by a strange mountain man named Belarius (Rod Gnapp), and the placement of that bloody object next to a sleeping Imogen.

Possibly aware that his audience might be confused and repelled by a work that seems to lack both a consistent narrative and a moral spine, Shakespeare tacks on a final scene that offers copious explanations, along with pleasant homilies about the virtues of true love and forgiveness.

No wonder the play is seldom produced! Working with a strong cast of principals, Marin Shakespeare Company (MSC) Artistic Director Robert Currier’s response is to stage it as a cross between a wacky musical and a Monty Python episode. Running time has been reduced to a comfortable two and a half hours.

There’s schtick (plenty of it), visual and verbal jokes of all kinds, interpolation of contemporary references, original songs by Billie Cox, a rock ’n’ roll dance number in which Thomas Gorrebeeck, (imitating Mick Jagger) brings the house down and a mock battle scene between Britons and Romans that has the combatants missing each other by wide margins.

Much of it works. Some—like a godawful parody of  “That’s Amore” and actors foraying into the audience (a running MSC gag that has grown stale)—doesn’t. Overall, though, it’s an entertaining romp—something the original could not possibly be.

So, is this reimagined Cymbeline a “Shakespeare play?” Ask your Zen master.

NOW PLAYING: Cymbeline runs through Sunday, July 26 at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, Dominican University, San Rafael. For more information, call 415/499-4488, or visit

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