Let’s give credit where credit is due: Karen Paisley, co-founder and artistic director of the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, long ago embraced audacity as an aesthetic value. She runs a small theater but she thinks big. Sometimes her audacious streak yields memorable shows, such as her stunning staging of the musical “Ragtime” and the epic “The Kentucky Cycle.” But often she courts disaster.
Her current production of William Shakespeare’s rarely produced “Cymbeline” is neither a smashing success nor an abject failure. It’s a rambling, loose-jointed affair that seems at every moment about to come apart at the seams, but it also showcases some excellent performances and reminds us, yet again, that the Bard employed vivid, penetrating language, even in his lesser plays. Paisley gives us a weird production of a weird play that clocks in at more than three hours.
“Cymbeline,” first performed in 1611, is rooted in the Roman invasion of Britain. But this is no history play. It’s a fantasy in which you can catch whiffs of “King Lear,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Winter’s Tale,” among other Shakespearean works. Young lovers are thwarted by treachery. A sleeping potion feigns death. A girl impersonates a boy and nobody, even those who know her intimately, recognizes her. Outcasts in the forest, raised by a garrulous old woodsman, are revealed to be of royal blood.
In her program notes, Paisley describes the world of the play as “dystopian,” and the show does indeed project a sense of decay, conveyed by salvaged-lumber sets and a playing area that divides the audience into two sections. The costumes are a grab-bag of pieces from different eras, including modern business suits, jeans and 19th-century military uniforms, placing the play in a time that could be the past or the future.
But Paisley has put an inventive twist on these elements by treating the original text as anything but sacrosanct. Her biggest decision was to impose gender reversals on key roles. Thus the title character, a king in the standard version of the play, becomes a queen. An evil queen in the original becomes a malevolent duke. A male servant to one principal character becomes female. Two brothers become brother and sister.
These choices create strong roles for some gifted actresses, which may be the only point. The novelty of seeing good female actors in roles written for me is entertaining but can’t really compensate for the play’s weaknesses.
For those who have never seen “Cymbeline” — and I presume that includes most of us — the thing to remember is this: The first 20 minutes or so of a Shakespearean play with which you are unfamiliar is an impenetrable blizzard of words. Gradually your ear becomes accustomed to the Bard’s language and the story slowly draws you in.
The story revolves around three plot lines: The first is the love between Imogen, the queen’s daughter, and Posthumus Leonatus, a commoner orphaned at birth, and the scheme by Iachimo, a treacherous Roman, to undermine their marriage. Second is the fate of Guideria and Arvigarius, siblings unaware of their royal lineage who live as deer-hunting outlaws with Belarius, an exiled soldier. Third is the war between Britain and Rome triggered by Cymbeline’s refusal to pay the Roman tribute.
The excellent Manon Halliburton plays the title role, rendering the queen as an intense, if ineffectual, leader with too many problems on her plate. An uncredited costumer clads her in black pants and boots which, when coupled with Halliburton’s commanding stage presence, yields the suggestion of a dominatrix. The evil Duke is a colorful villain in a double-breasted suit as played by Scott Cox, who excels when he reappears as Belarius, the outcast but loyal subject who has raised the two royal offspring in the forest. The customarily impressive Logan Black plays Posthumus in a smooth manner that makes a complicated role look simple and clear.
Halliburton, Cox and Black are veteran performers on local stages, but this show also presents several performers new to MET audiences. Marie Warner, as Imogen, handles comic lines with impressive timing in a performance that generally isn’t as sharp as it needs to be. As the duplicitous Iachimo, Dalton Mobley makes a dazzling Kansas City debut as he imbues the role with humor and smarts. Similarly, Matthew Emerick, a talented comic actor, declares himself to local audiences in his funny/scary take on Cloten, the queen’s sociopathic son. Nicole Hall, in her MET debut, scores moments of inspired comedy as the forest-dwelling Guideria. She and Tommy Waller, who plays Guideria’s brother, share potent comic chemistry. As Pisiana, servant to Posthumus, Megan Wagner invests considerable charm in a utilitarian role.
Among the supporting players are MET veterans Andy Penn, Jordan Fox and Alan Tilson, handling a variety of roles with unfussy professionalism.
So, if you’re in the mood for unfamiliar Shakespeare and are willing to tolerate the MET’s church-pew setting, this production might be for you. I can say without hesitation that you’ll never see another one quite like it.
“Cymbeline” runs through Nov. 26 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. Call 816-569-3226 or go to www.metkc.org.