Few Shakespearean heroines are more put-upon than Imogen, the perpetually besieged princess in “Cymbeline.’’
From her autocratic father to her faithless husband to a treacherous would-be seducer to an aggressively persistent suitor, the men in Imogen’s life are a dismal lot. Heck, even Shakespeare denies Imogen her rightful chance to speak her piece during the excessively protracted denouement of “Cymbeline,’’ rendering her almost silent while the guys gas on and on, laboriously spelling out the details of the play’s allegedly happy ending.
Yet in the two acts before that ending arrives on Boston Common in a generally lively Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of “Cymbeline,’’ Nora Eschenheimer delivers such a fiery performance as the princess that there’s no mistaking Imogen’s wit, spirit, and resilience.
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that “Cymbeline’’ is a convoluted and haphazard play. Perhaps the only way to tackle this late romance is head-on, embracing and even amplifying its absurdities and contradictions. That is more or less what director Fred Sullivan Jr. has apparently chosen to do.
Sullivan has described “Cymbeline’’ as a fairy tale, and he stages it in that whimsical vein, complete with singing by the cast and deliberate anachronisms in the show’s design. So there is no attempt to explain why, for instance, the British characters wear Edwardian-era garb (the costumes are by Elisabetta Polito) but the Roman soldiers are attired in Caesarian helmets and outfits. Designed by Jessica Hill and Patrick Lynch, the set is dominated by a ramshackle structure that appears to be collapsing in on itself and evokes the illustrations of Edward Gorey. An epic battle is staged a bit like a game of dodgeball.
Known for vividness onstage as a performer himself (he’s appeared in many Free Shakespeare on the Common shows), Sullivan has established running room for the big gesture by his actors. That makes a certain sense in an outdoor setting where the dialogue sometimes has to compete with the wail of ambulances, the clatter of helicopters, and the chiming of church bells.
Making especially good use of that running room are Jesse Hinson as the roguish, amoral Iachimo, whom Hinson plays as a kind of bro-gone-bad, and Kelby T. Akin as the loutish Cloten, a popinjay in red-and-white stripes who is determined to have Imogen. But in the crucial role of Posthumus Leonatus, Imogen’s husband, Daniel Duque-Estrada is tepid and too subdued. While Posthumus’s behavior may be baffling and his motives murky, Duque-Estrada doesn’t sufficiently engage us in a guessing game about what’s going on in the character’s mind.
After Posthumus is exiled by King Cymbeline (Tony Estrella) for being insufficiently high-born to marry the princess, he ends up in Rome. There, Iachimo bets Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen, and for some reason Posthumus accepts the bet. Later, when he is falsely persuaded that Imogen was unfaithful, Posthumus orders her killed by his servant, Pisanio (Remo Airaldi, excellent as usual). Imogen’s flight brings her into the company of an old cave-dweller named Belarius (Tom Gleadow) and his two sons, Guiderius (Jonathan Higginbotham) and Arviragus (Michael Underhill). The two lads, who have the rowdy demeanor and grooming habits of the Wildlings in “Game of Thrones,’’ have a connection to Imogen that none of them knows about. Their scenes are eventful, and Gleadow, Higginbotham, and Underhill bring a lot of energy to them, but it still amounts to too much of an OK thing, never quite escaping the feeling of filler.
(Speaking of connections: Sullivan, who was a resident actor at Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company for more than three decades, has imparted a distinctly Rhode Island flavor to this “Cymbeline.’’ Eschenheimer has performed at the Gamm Theatre and at the Ocean State Theatre Company, both located in Warwick, R.I. Estrella and Jeanine Kane, who plays the Queen, have acted opposite each other many times at the Gamm Theatre, where Estrella is artistic director. Gleadow, too, is a regular at the Gamm.)
At one point during CommShakes’s “Cymbeline’’ there appears to be a visual nod to Wilson, the blood-streaked soccer ball that keeps Tom Hanks company in “Cast Away.’’ The fault is Shakespeare’s, not this production’s, but it remains galling that at the end of a play for which she provides the vital center, Imogen doesn’t get to say much more than Wilson did.
Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Fred Sullivan Jr. Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. On Boston Common, through Aug. 4. Free. 617-426-0863, www.commshakes.org