“Cymbeline” can feel like Shakespearean “Mad Libs.” You’ve got your lady marrying against her angry Dad’s will. There’s a deception that makes her man wrongly and murderously jealous. The girl dresses as a guy and flees from the court into the woods. There’s a sleeping potion that makes everyone think she’s dead—it’s a crowded bag of familiar tricks.
Plus there’s an evil queen, an evil queen’s evil son, a conflicted servant, a disgraced and disguised former advisor, some hidden princes and a full-on inter-kingdom war. Even in hands as capable as A.S.P.’s, it’s a little confusing, and more so with their propensity for double and triple casting.
Some characters get lost. In fact some of the best ones mysteriously disappear for long stretches, as if they were forgotten or the author just got tired of writing them—like Iachimo (Neil McGarry), who bets the dashing Posthumus Leonatus (De’Lon Grant) he can prove to him that Imogen (Brooke Hardman), his new wife, is unfaithful. Iachimo hides in a treasure chest he has delivered to her and then studies her body and steals her ring while she’s asleep. Then there’s the aforementioned evil queen (Marya Lowry), who seems like the central character of the first couple of acts. Her final fate, suffered offstage is merely summarized in a finale in which major revelations are piled on the side of the road in heaps.
How does Actors’ Shakespeare Project deal with this play’s many challenges in this, the opening production of their Winter Festival? By not taking it too seriously. From the moment actress Marya Lowry wafts through the Davis Square storefront where the festival is staged, opening and closing a tinkling music box as she lilts a casual curtain speech, it’s pretty clear things aren’t going to get too heavy.
Lowry and the full cast of seven versatile actors, dressed in flattering snowy white garb, buoy this difficult play with lighthearted charm. They wear their characters lightly, announcing each act and scene they are about to present, and stepping aside after each exit to serve as low-tech sound-effect-and-music-makers, as if they’re presenting the broadcast of a radio show for a live studio audience.
Essentially, director Doug Lockwood’s concept works to the extent that its cast maintains its breeziness. It works best when they indulge in full on goofy satire. It falters when they lose themselves and play for pathos. It’s not that these talented actors can’t handle the drama—far from it, it’s just that the way things are framed, the stakes aren’t there.
If you’re looking for a fully realized Shakespearean masterpiece, maybe wait to see how A.S.P. does with Antony and Cleopatra this spring, but if you’re in the mood for a bit of a romp with some clever (if familiar) plot devices and a dusting of fine poetry, check out this fresh take on a Shakespearean B-side.
Cymbeline plays through February 20 at the Storefront on Elm, 255 Elm Street, Davis Square, Somerville.