By Tristan Lejeune
There are literary scholars who believe that Cymbeline may be Shakespeare’s attempt at self-parody. So ridiculous and implausible is its story. So familiar and recycled are its devices of lovers’ rings, cross-gender disguises, and long-lost stolen royal children.
Down in Anacostia, Theatre Prometheus is tackling this problematic Jacobean drama by adding a new wrinkle: The male lead and a handful of other characters have been recast as women. So when the British king, Cymbeline (Christopher Holbert), is furious with his daughter, Imogen (Caitlin Partridge), for marrying against his wishes, it’s two wives he divides with his wrath. Posthumus (Briana Manente) is exiled to Rome, but she won’t be there long before she gets sucked back into plots of seduction wagers, palace intrigue, and a Roman invasion over tribute payments.
Theatre Prometheus, a small, young nonprofit troupe (they “bring the fire,” apparently), is taking none of this too seriously, thank the gods. They recognize the silliness in long-separated siblings meeting by accident in the woods, or bottles of poison that aren’t poison at all. The music cues are all modern, and the costumes blend Elizabethan vests and swords with leather jackets and gold lamé. The whole thing feels almost like a lighthearted skit, despite running two-and-a-half hours. If Shakespeare was after self-parody, this production is happy to laugh with him. And no one’s gonna complain about a just-cuz rendition of “Wonderwall.”
The problem is: Changing a character’s gender but little of her dialogue or actions leaves the warrior and the princess in very distinct “masc” and “fem” roles, which don’t do the lesbian lovers any favors. Also hanging around like party guests who don’t know when to leave are vestigial standards of monogamy and fidelity, e.g. “women who cheat deserve to die.”
So it’s even less believable than usual for Posthumus to make a bet with a total (male) stranger over Imogen’s faithfulness, less still for her to order her bride’s death when it appears the deed has been done.
Partridge’s Imogen is a highlight: plucky and indomitable, with good comedic timing. Manente was also well-cast, though she gets at least one too many noir-lit melodramatic monologues. Standouts among the ensemble include Mollie Goff and Rachel Murray, who can seize moments without stealing scenes.
Director Tracey Erbacher does a solid job with the editing (So long, Jupiter cameo!) so that every scene takes measurable steps with moving the plot forward. But the final scene is still a 20-car pileup of explanations, reveals and forgiveness — it has to be, with this much poppycock flying around. But this ragtag gang knows how to play that, too; when “the queen is dead” is a laugh line, you’re doing something right. But then: Dying is easy, comedy is hard.