A formula for the perfect midsummer night

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Princess Innogen (Emily Jordan) reads a very unpleasant letter. As usual in Shakespeare’s plays, a lack of communication and a surplus of misunderstandings play a key role in “Cymbeline.” Photo by Amrutha Dorai.

Amrutha Dorai

 

 

Princess Innogen (Emily Jordan) reads a very unpleasant letter. As usual in Shakespeare’s plays, a lack of communication and a surplus of misunderstandings play a key role in “Cymbeline.” Photo by Amrutha Dorai.


William Shakespeare had a formula. It was a formula that he replicated frequently and relentlessly, and one that usually involved rehashing at least one of the following concepts: long-lost siblings (“The Comedy of Errors”), cross-dressing women (“Twelfth Night”), or the notorious potion-that-makes-you-look-like-you’re-dead-but-really-you’re-just-out-cold-for-two-and-forty-hours (“Romeo and Juliet”).  Yes, Shakespeare had a formula, and darn it if it doesn’t work like a charm.
Every one of these elements is at play in “Cymbeline,” which is showing for free at Memorial Park throughout August as a part of Cupertino’s Shakespeare in the Park program. All of the tried-and-true watermarks of Shakespeare’s work, as well as the efforts of the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, make “Cymbeline” a delight to watch.

One of the lesser known of the Bard’s works, “Cymbeline” is, for all intents and purposes, a fairytale. Neither a tragedy nor a comedy, the play walks the line between both sides of the spectrum—despite its pandering to various stereotypes, it still manages to find a genre all its own. To make a long story short, Innogen (Emily Jordan), the princess of Britain, secretly marries Posthumus (Craig Marker), a penniless fellow with a heart of gold and some very snazzy plaid pants. When Innogen’s daddy finds out about the affair, Posthumus is banishèd all the way to Mantua—er, Italy. Miscommunication wreaks havoc, Posthumus is led to believe that Innogen is cheating on him, and if you can’t see where this is going yet, you’ve clearly never read anything by Shakespeare before.

It’s fun stuff. There is humor and romance and death and action—something akin to a seventeenth century “Indiana Jones.” The fact that the whole plot is laughably formulaic doesn’t detract from its charm. Numerous pitch-perfect performances also serve to elevate “Cymbeline” to another level: particularly noteworthy include those of the wicked Queen (played by Sharon Robinson with slinky grace) and Iachimo (Brian Herndon), the creepiest creeper you’ve ever seen. However, several actors are cast in multiple roles, resulting in moderate to severe confusion: I spent around half of the play thinking that Posthumus had split-personality disorder before realizing that the actor was in fact performing as two different characters.

In a bizarre twist, “Cymbeline” doubles as a musical. This is perhaps the play’s biggest failure. All of the musical numbers fall rather flat: though excellent actors, none of the cast members are exactly “American Idol” material. To their credit, however, the choreography is fascinating. One scene in which several actors clustered in the center of the stage and did an interpretive dance to simulate a battle is a highlight of the play.

More enjoyable than any element of the play itself, however, is the atmosphere that surrounds the show. Blankets are scattered across the grass. Parents and children unite to prove that, yes, there is still such a thing as family bonding. As the night grows darker and colder, spotlights softly illuminate not only the stage but the audience as well. There is an inexplicable, old-timey joy in being able to share this experience with the hundreds of other members of the audience; this, more than any television program or movie, is real entertainment.

So here’s a formula for the perfect midsummer night: grab a friend and some blankets, and head over to Memorial Park.

And darn it if it doesn’t work like a charm.

“Cymbeline” is playing for free at Memorial Park on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. until August 28.