Fred Sullivan Jr. wears a Mickey Mouse T-shirt underneath his short-sleeve buttoned-down shirt and shorts. The reference underscores his vision for “Cymbeline,” which he is directing for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s free Shakespeare on the Common production July 17-Aug. 4.
“It’s a wonderful fairy tale,” Sullivan says of the romance written late in the Bard’s career. “It reminds me of so many outsized Disney characters, including the evil stepmother in ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Peter Pan’s’ Lost Boys, and even Gaston from ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ ”
“Cymbeline” traces the story of Imogen, a princess who has defied the wishes of her father, King Cymbeline, by marrying for love rather than her stepmother’s doltish son. After her husband is banished, he becomes convinced Imogen has cheated on him and tells his servant to murder her. Imogen flees into the forest, disguising herself as a man, only to discover her brothers are living there, kidnapped from court as babies and raised as wild young men. Shakespeare adds to the chaos by setting the action in three locations: Rome, ancient England, and the wilderness of Wales, and includes some mythological creatures and a cameo appearance by Jupiter.
“At one level, the play feels like the highlight reel of the playwright’s best works,” says Nora Eschenheimer, who plays Imogen. “But Fred found a way to bind them all together using the glue of the fairy tale.”
Although “Cymbeline’s” mash-up of plot twists and far-flung settings has made it one of Shakespeare’s rarely performed plays, Sullivan says he was excited to have the chance to direct it.
After all, he says, “Cymbeline” is the only Shakespeare romance he hasn’t worked on during a career performing in 300 plays and directing 60 others, at both Trinity Repertory Company, where he was a member of the company for 35 years, and at the Gamm Theatre in Warwick, R.I.
The reason we continue to produce Shakespeare’s plays, Sullivan says, is because “he understood what we struggle with. Our Disney references are fun, but the story also drops into deep emotions and gives us a powerful woman to follow on a journey to forgiveness.”
“Imogen is a fantastic female character,” says Eschenheimer. “She steps into worlds that aren’t her own — she disguises herself as a simple country boy named Fidele, becomes a page to a Roman soldier — and develops an empathy for others while staying loyal to the people she loves. Along the way she has a bit of Juliet’s innocence, Rosalind’s sense of adventure, Beatrice’s determination, and her own giant heart.”
Sullivan says he was careful to surround himself with a 24-member ensemble with complementary strengths.
“I was very thoughtful about where to place these actors,” says Sullivan, “not only on the stage but in relation to each other.”
The company includes athletic actors who manage handstands in the scenes in the woods, and others who provide musical accompaniment on an array of instruments. It also includes Tony Estrella, artistic director of the Gamm Theatre, where he also appears regularly onstage.
As King Cymbeline, he is playing Eschenheimer’s father for the third time, and he says the shorthand they have helps them navigate the complex father-daughter emotions on display.
“I love the wildly operatic emotions these characters experience,” he says. “Cymbeline is Lear-like in the beginning: He wants what’s best for his daughter, but he refuses to listen to her when she is honest with him. As an actor, we can’t be afraid of expressing those big emotions. It’s a play where the character’s impulses are given free reign and then at the end, order is restored.”
Estrella says it’s no mistake the hero of the story is a woman.
“When we think about how the story plays for us today,” he says, “we still accept that men go to war, that it’s OK for men to indulge our aggressive impulses. Imogen is punished by her father, falsely accused by her husband. She considers revenge, but her strength comes from her compassion and her willingness to forgive them.”
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company artistic director Steve Maler, who has begun alternating directing responsibility every other year, says it was easy to hand over the directing reins to Sullivan this year. Maler cast him in 13 of the past 23 Shakespeare on the Common productions. As he works to sustain the popular Shakespeare on the Common production while building out a richer year-round season of contemporary and classic plays through his partnership with Babson College, Maler says he’s eager to provide directors with the resources they need to do their best work.
“I can be an unbiased pair of eyes,” says Maler, “but I want to give them the freedom to present their vision. Fred is very savvy about what works theatrically, especially on the unique canvas the outdoor stage on the Common provides.”
What’s most important, says Maler, “is that Fred really understands the material and knows how the actors should propel the action and activate the language.”
It’s extraordinary that Shakespeare’s plays are so flexible, says Sullivan.
“We don’t need to dress actors in pumpkin pants to have his work feel authentic,” he says. “As long as we are true to the emotions of the characters, and audience are both moved and feel great joy, we’ve done our job.”
Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. At Boston Common, July 17-Aug. 4. Free.