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Stage Review

A merry, messy ‘Cymbeline’ at Shakespeare & Company

From left: Nigel Gore, Jason Asprey, and Jonathan Epstein in “Cymbeline.” Stratton McCrady

LENOX — “I don’t know much about ‘Cymbeline,’ ” Tina Packer wrote with characteristic candor in “Women of Will,’’ her incisive 2015 book about the female characters in the plays of William Shakespeare. “I’ve never directed it, never acted in it, never taught it.’’

Well, Packer is checking the first of those boxes now, at least, with a rambunctious production of “Cymbeline’’ at Shakespeare & Company. In the process, she is joining what is surely rarefied company, having now directed all 37 Shakespeare plays. And possibly more rarefied still: A spokeswoman said Thursday that the company believes Packer is the first woman to direct all the plays in the canon.


So “Cymbeline’’ represents a milestone for Packer. For Shakespeare, not so much.

It is a notoriously messy work, rife with problems that include, but are not limited to, an overstuffed and chaotic plot, persistent currents of implausibility and illogic, and a dependence on gimmicks recycled from earlier, better works (among them “Othello,’’ “Romeo and Juliet,’’ “The Taming of the Shrew,’’ “Much Ado About Nothing,’’ and “The Two Gentlemen of Verona’’). Indeed, there are parts of “Cymbeline’’ that border on self-parody. Shakespeare asks us to accept the reunion between a woman and the husband who tried to have her killed — on pretty slender evidence of a supposed infidelity — as a happy ending.

Packer doesn’t so much solve those problems as cheerfully embrace them. In “Women of Will,’’ she wrote of “Cymbeline’’: “It has always seemed like the play Shakespeare decided to write in order to revisit every theme, trick, and in-joke he ever used in his canon, and as a kind of merry theatrical exercise: to come up with a new play out of themes used heretofore!” Seizing the license afforded by the Bard’s casual approach, Packer makes merry herself, leaning hard on the comedy of a play typically classified as one of his late romances.


Underscoring the shaky standing of “Cymbeline’’ in the canon, it is nowhere to be found among the 20 “essential plays’’ included in “The Norton Shakespeare.’’ In his magisterial, indispensable “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,’’ Harold Bloom wrote that “ ‘Cymbeline’ puzzles as frequently as it enchants’’ — which is not a bad description of Packer’s production, which she is staging in a theater named after her, with the company where she was the founding artistic director and remains a guiding spirit, in a production that features her son, Jason Asprey, in the cast.

Though “Cymbeline’’ largely takes place in ancient Britain, with detours to Italy and frequent invocations of the god Jupiter, Tyler Kinney’s costumes evoke the Elizabethan era, apart from a few Roman military helmets. Packer indulges in some sight gags involving stuffed animals, including one that seems borrowed from “Brideshead Revisited.’’ The nine members of her cast shoulder multiple roles, and when Jonathan Epstein switches into the role of Cymbeline, the king of Britain, a stagehand materializes at his side to hold a hand mirror so Epstein can properly adjust his long, white wig.

However, “Cymbeline’’ belongs not to its title character (Shakespeare wasted little time on the king; he’s a cardboard character) but rather to Imogen, the king’s capable daughter, portrayed by Tamara Hickey. When the king learns that Imogen has secretly married her lover, Posthumus (Thomas Brazzle), he banishes Posthumus, who ends up in Rome. That frees up the evil Queen (Bella Merlin), Cymbeline’s second wife and Imogen’s stepmother, to pursue her scheme to have her doltish son from a previous marriage, Cloten (Asprey), marry Imogen, which would cement their hold on the throne. Asprey’s Cloten somewhat resembles Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow.


Meanwhile, in Italy, a knave named Iachimo (Josh Aaron McCabe) proposes a strange bet with Posthumus, which Posthumus strangely accepts: that Iachimo can seduce the virtuous Imogen and bring back proof. When Iachimo — who’s a sort of bargain-basement Iago — later persuades Posthumus that the seduction was successful, Posthumus orders the servant Pisanio (Deaon Griffin-Pressley) to kill her. But Pisanio balks at that directive.

Imogen, disguised as a man, ends up at a cave in the mountains of Wales occupied by a long-banished lord, Belarius (Nigel Gore, a welcome presence as always), and his two sons (played by Merlin and Ella Loudon). Or at least the lads think Belarius is their father: In fact, they are the sons of none other than Cymbeline, from whom Belarius kidnapped them two decades earlier, and Imogen is their sister. What are the odds?

There’s more, much more, way too much more, in “Cymbeline.’’ By stocking her energetic production with entertaining, if sometimes hectic, diversions, Packer ensures we don’t think too hard about any of it.


Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tina Packer. Presented by Shakespeare & Company. At Tina Packer Playhouse, Lenox, through Aug. 6. Tickets $20-$75, 413-637-3353, www.shakespeare.org


Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.