Production tackles difficult Shakespeare

Between now and Nov. 18, six days remain to catch Cymbeline at Pasadena’s A Noise Within Theatre. No lover of Shakespeare should miss it.

Damsel in distress · As the lead, Imogen, Helen Sadler is the only actor playing one character in A Noise Within’s take on Cymbeline. – | Photo courtesy of A Noise Within Theatre

First produced in 1611 and rarely performed since, the Bard’s dark fairytale receives an invigorating revival that resonates with the extreme themes of today. The blindly passionate characters might speak in the tongue-tying manner of “thou” and “thee” from Early Modern English, but the lessons learned — to follow your heart and find hope from despair — are very 2012 and are captured by an enthralling production that perfectly plays out every line of Shakespeare’s fantastical imagination.

One of Shakespeare’s final plays, Cymbeline constitutes a romance and a tragicomedy, the joyous reconciliation at the end distinguishing it from earlier tragedies. It doesn’t fail, however, to emphasize the ever-present uncertainties and dangers of an evil world.

A dark fairy tale in and of itself, the play follows the journey of Imogen, the daughter of Cymbeline, king of Britain. During this journey, identities get traded, infants stolen, villains beheaded, lovers reconciled and potions concocted. Throw in a couple of yodeling, vine-lassoing Tarzan boys — lost sons of Cymbeline and brothers to Imogen — and you have the magic of  Cymbeline.

The play is a melting pot of Shakespeare’s past works, with characters flitting in from other stories. The Imogen-Cymbeline pairing mirrors the father-daughter relationship King Lear and Cordelia. The Queen, stepmother of Imogen, schemes similarly to Lady Macbeth. The rouge Iachimo parallels Othello’s Iago, while the green-eyed monster of Othello himself makes an appearance in the psyche of Posthumus, this time triggered by a bracelet rather than a strawberry handkerchief. In this way, Cymbeline is a classic Shakespearean puzzle.

And in real life, in real time, director Bart DeLorenzo lifts it all into the spotlight. Approaching Shakespeare’s arcane syntax with effortless naturalism, DeLorenzo makes the leap from page to stage without having to alter any of the Bard’s language. His handling of a stellar cast results in literal widespread emotional nuance, with actors making use of not just the stage but the entire theater: The characters dash up and down the aisles, entering from behind the audience to the stage, making for a very surround-sound — and action-packed — experience. At times, the Queen, in her silver gown and evil cunning, could be just an arm’s length away.

If some of the players look familiar, rest assured, it’s not a hallucination. In order to underline the fine line between good and evil, DeLorenzo cast each actor, save the actress playing Imogen (Helen Sadler), with two roles, one “good” and one “bad” character. By making these significant doublings, he is able to underline the distinction between good and evil. The ease of the actors’ transformations happens the way Shakespeare seemingly intended, a testimony to the marvelous talent here.

Adam Haas Hunter inhabits Posthumus, Imogen’s romantic hero, and Cloten, the comic villain, with unerring honesty. Likewise, Joel Swetow takes on the role of both hard-hearted King Cymbeline and Philario, Posthumus’ best buddy. Andrew Elvis Miller pulls puckish Iachimo’s machinations from his marrow, while donning the noble attire of Roman ambassador Caius Lucius. The rest of the cast, including Francia DiMase’s (the Queen) and Time Winters (Pisanio) might have just walked off the pages.

The lead, Helen Sadler, becomes one with the courageous, hotheaded, love-enthralled heroine Imogen. In a seamless, selfless ensemble, the artists portray their characters astoundingly well.

Meticulous designers Angela Balogh Calin and Monica Lisa Sabedra match each character with the most sweeping fusion fairytale fashions and makeup, as if sewing a second skin. The audience won’t forget the bouncing explosion of rusty curls sprouting from snobbish Cloten’s head any time soon, nor will they lose sight of the cleverly designed headless body of Cloten after Guiderius decapitates him.

From the start, the airy, dancing woodwind music of composer John Ballinger sets the mood for a story dark enough to awe, yet light enough to elicit laughs. The lighting, designed by Ken Booth, is also impressive, creating moments in which scenes overlap to point out underlying themes. During Imogen and Posthumus’ heartbreaking separation, both lovers were in the same spotlight, a symbolic gesture displaying how close they are despite the miles that stretch between them.

Though spoken in Early Modern English, the timeless humor is not lost on the audience. The antagonists deftly swing the audience to their side with one-off remarks. The outrageously unreal scenes, dramatic irony thickly lathered in the lines and the play’s signature, outlandish, off-balanced fun will entice snickers throughout the experience.

For all its wit and depth, Cymbeline is no mere tragedy-turned-comedy, but a pulse-quickening, enchanting literary confection, done full justice by A Noise Within’s perceptive edition, now a company benchmark.