Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare's last plays, can be a tough nut to crack. It's comedic, but not as explicitly as, say, A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's based on a real, first-century British king, but too loosely to earn the label "history." Nor is it always regarded favorably. The great Samuel Johnson, for one, called it imbecilic.
Quantum Theatre artistic director Karla Boos calls it the Bard's late-life experiment in humor and absurdism, which is why she chose the play as her next Shakespeare production, premiering July 31. Quantum specializes in the experimental, performing in places like an empty Braddock swimming pool and Downtown's former Lazarus department store. For Cymbeline, Quantum built a small Elizabethan stage in the Rose Garden of Point Breeze's Mellon Park, also the site of such recent Quantum productions as The Crucible. "I think that the play belongs in a natural setting, and our natural setting can be Britain, Rome or Wales if we tell you it is thus," says Boos, over mussels at a nearby restaurant after a rehearsal.
The stage itself is nearly empty, utilizing instead its natural surroundings. At rehearsal, actors appear and disappear between the box firs trimmed flush with the raised stage. Two thick fir trees serve as the backstage.
Meanwhile, says Boos, the natural setting highlights, by contrast, the play's mechanical qualities. Imogen (played by Mikelle Johnson), the betrayed daughter of King Cymbeline, stumbles on the cave where her long-lost brothers have lived in secret. The cave is also discovered by Imogen's villainous step-brother, whose headless body Imogen later mistakes for her husband's. The familiar gears of Shakespearean coincidence work overtime, churning out unlikely events until Jupiter himself must step in to set things right.
Boos considers even the casting machine-like. Cymbeline amplifies familiar Shakespearean devices: poison, disguise, wagering and especially character foils. Each actor except Johnson further exaggerates that last technique by playing multiple roles: The two men who love Imogen (both played by Sam Turich), the evil queen and machinating Iachimo (both Mark D. Staley) and the king of Britain, the Roman proconsul, Jupiter and jailer (all David Whalen). The top-shelf cast also includes Rick Kemp, Patrick Jordan and Joel Ripka. Like flipping a switch, actors change characters -- some even from hero to villain -- with the flip of a flap on their costumes. "You are forced to consider whether that good guy is really all that perfect," says Boos, "and even whether that bad guy is really all that one-dimensional."
Another juxtaposition has a modern twist. Cymbeline's plot frequently hangs on letters: Love letters, false love letters and instructions for murder litter the stage, quite literally in Quantum's case. Mounted in the upstage fir trees are two printers, from which occasionally emerge long scrolls bearing words commenting on the action. Characters tear off the sheets, read them as letters, crumple them and toss them. The printouts invite comparison between the cruciality of the play's written communication and the disposability of the written word -- in e-mails, text messages and even weekly newspapers -- in modern times.
Moreover, Boos says the audience gets to participate in the play. Just how, she doesn't say. But it's got to do with those printers, and the fact that longtime Quantum fan Illah Nourbakhsh, of Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, is co-directing the Robot 250 initiative. As part of Robot 250's mission, he wanted to empower the performing arts through technology, so he and software engineer (and former Quantum technical director) Aaron Tarnow helped conceive and implement the production's audience-response equipment.
"It's always a two-way street between the audience and a play," Nourbakhsh says. "But the question is, is technology able to facilitate modification of that two-way street in ways that are invigorating and eye-opening?"
A question answered only by experimentation. Given Cymbeline's wild story, it's a tactic the older Shakespeare might have approved of.
Quantum Theatre presents Cymbeline Thu., July 31-Aug. 24. Mellon Park, Point Breeze. $25-35 ($15 students). 412-394-3353 or www.quantumtheatre.com