Theater & dance

stages | terry byrne

To Tina Packer, ‘Cymbeline’ is much more than a Shakespeare medley

Nigel Gore, Bella Merlin, Thomas Brazzle, Josh Aaron McCabe,

Olivia Winslow

Nigel Gore, Bella Merlin, Thomas Brazzle, Josh Aaron McCabe,

‘Cymbeline,” one of William Shakespeare’s late plays, bursts with plot twists, comic antics, and tragic scenes, and it contains a treasure trove of references to moments and characters from other plays in his canon. But at the heart of it all, says actress Tamara Hickey, “Cymbeline” is the story of a woman learning to be free enough to choose who she loves.

“All of her actions come from a place of pure love,” says Hickey, who plays Imogen, the central figure in the Shakespeare & Company production running from July 4-Aug. 6 at the Tina Packer Playhouse in Lenox. “That single-minded focus becomes threatening to some of the other characters in the play, but the twists and turns she experiences deepen and strengthen her understanding of what love is.”

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In the play, King Cymbeline has remarried and promised his only daughter to his new queen’s oafish son, Cloten. Instead, Imogen defies her father by marrying a non-royal named Posthumus, who is then promptly banished from the kingdom. Imogen’s choice sets off a series of incidents in which men test her loyalty, her honesty, and her determination. To survive, she must disguise herself as a boy and go in search of her husband. A stolen bracelet, a poisonous potion, a reunion with her long-lost brothers, and some pitched battles all ensue in a play filled with multiple plot complications before everything and everyone is sorted out.

Shakespeare & Company’s founding artistic director Tina Packer says she is in a unique position to direct the rarely produced “Cymbeline,” since it marks the 37th Shakespeare play she has helmed — in other words, all of them.

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“Through working with this company over the past 40 seasons, I’ve grown up with Shakespeare, and I’m surrounded by people who experienced that with me, not unlike Richard Burbage and the actors in Shakespeare’s original company,” she says.

The references to other plays, which some scholars find distracting or confusing, amplify Shakespeare’s basic theme, says Packer.

“I really see this as a story of passionate, forbidden love,” she says. “Imogen and Posthumus are more responsible versions of Romeo and Juliet.”

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References include nods to the scheming Iago of “Othello,” the jealous lovers of “A Winter’s Tale,” “Othello,” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” the mistaken identities of “Twelfth Night” and “A Comedy of Errors,” not to mention some moments of classic comic clowning.

“What makes this fun to play is that we aren’t anticipating how the audience will react because we know they aren’t familiar with the play,” Packer says, “but they will recognize these characters and some of these dramatic moments. The audience has to decide who to believe, and sometimes they are misled by characters or situations that look familiar.”

The challenge is pulling all the pieces together, and Packer says that what became obvious to her was all the alchemy in the midst of the action.

“A prophecy seen in a dream comes true and is just one example of the ways in which what is unconscious needs to be brought to the surface.”

Packer says she’s expanded the idea of what can and cannot be seen to include the actors and the stage itself. With the offstage areas visible, not only will the audience see the actors getting ready, they will also see them changing from one character to another, sometimes in an instant. Although Packer is known for the “bare Bard” style of pared-down scripts featuring just a handful of actors to intensify dramatic scenes, she says that wasn’t her intention here.

“I have actually restored sections of the play that other directors cut because they didn’t see the importance of the cabalistic signs and symbols,” she says. “But I do find that having actors play multiple roles heightens the excitement for the audience, and in this case, plays on that notion of who the audience should believe. Also, in the final scene, in which all sorts of things are being revealed, it simply adds to the fun.”

Packer says she turned to Hickey because she needed someone who could be the moral compass for the play, but also deliver a strong sense of fun.

“In some ways,” says Hickey, “this is a coming-of-age story for Imogen, but I’m not playing her as a naive teenager. She stays true to who she is, even though by the end she realizes that love is more complex than she originally thought.”

Says Packer, “I like the idea that this is a play that manages to embrace tragedy, comedy, and romance. Ultimately, it’s a reminder that love has to be spread around.”

Peterborough Players stage Beirne’s return

Boston Conservatory graduate and Elliot Norton Award winner Bridget Beirne returns to New England for the Peterborough Players production of “Constellations,” July 5-16. Don’t be thrown off by descriptions of characters who discuss string theory or early universe cosmology. Playwright Nick Payne’s sweet love story travels the path of boy-meets-girl in surprisingly affecting ways. Beirne, who has been heartbreaking in both “A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline” and SpeakEasy Stage’s first production of “Violet,” is a sure bet. Tickets: www.peterboroughplayers.org.

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.
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