Cymbeline Review -- A Fairytale Spectacle

Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s last plays, and it contains almost every plot convention from his previous works: lovers torn asunder, a (slightly twisted) bed trick, jealous husbands and headstrong wives, disguise, gender confusion, sleeping drams, separated siblings, deception, war, mercy, and forgiveness. Lady Macbeth meets Romeo and Juliet with a dash of Snow White and the Three Mountain Men. While the mix promises to be entertaining, how does it tie together? In Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Cymbeline, the answer seems simple: it’s a fairytale. True to fairytale form, characters and conflicts are larger than life, logic does not necessarily apply, and the happily-ever-after is never impossible.

Inside the theater

Cymbeline opens Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s 21st season. The theater is located on Navy Pier, looking onto the lake and the city skyline, surrounded by boutiques, restaurants, boats, gardens, and families enjoying the city. However, on entering Chicago Shake’s Courtyard Theater, the mood becomes much more somber as a two-story, jet-black set confronts the audience.

Designed by Michael Philippi, it immediately plunges audience members into an otherworldly space, which is dark and grim as the fairytale begins but, bit by bit, reveals just as much sun as Navy Pier itself. In the end, director Barbara Gaines uses the epic resources of theater to create a truly epic and cinematic play. With thunder and lightening, gods and soothsayers, kings, princesses, and ruffians, Cymbeline is a spectacle that rises beyond the everyday pleasures of Navy Pier.

Posthumus and Imogin

Gaines, who is also the Artistic Director of CST, creates a fairytale atmosphere through bold choices and big designs. For example, she bookends the play with the Storyteller (played by a deep-voiced and imposing John McFarland), whose is exposition is the “once upon a time” that sets the stage for a fairytale. At the end, he reappears to smile on his handiwork, as if to say “and they lived happily ever after.” This dramatic gesture reminds the audience that, though the play is fun and absurd, it is also intensely human—and that, though deceits may obscure and multiply, they cannot suppress the truth of human nature.

King Cymboline, his daughter, Imogin and his Queen

The conflict between nature and corruption twists throughout the multiple plotlines of the play. Princess Imogen incurs the wrath of King Cymbeline, her father, when she marries Posthumus, a valiant, true soldier who is unfortunately below her social station. Cymbeline wants Imogen to marry Cloten, the son of his new, corrupting Queen. Chaon Cross plays a strong, proud Imogen, who almost matches her father in willfulness; she is passionate, but never quite loses her head, not even when Posthumous is banished, or when Iachimo, a womanizing gambler, tries to seduce her by telling her that Posthumus has been disloyal. However, when Iachimo convinces Posthumus that he has successfully seduced Imogen, the princess faces a real test of faith. In Snow White style, Posthumus orders his servant to kill Imogen, but the servant instead dresses her as a man and leaves her in a forest. Thus, Imogen trades the poisonous façades of the court for the wilds of nature. She meets mountain men and Roman legionaries, lives in a cave and fights in a battle, and eventually finds her way back to Posthumus. Through a series of deserved deaths and improbable revelations, King Cymbeline finds a worthy successor, Imogen regains true love, and the corruption of Britain rearranges into a natural, well-ordered state.

Iachimo and Imogin

The show rests on strong performances across the cast: Cross is giddy in love but also headstrong and commanding; Larry Yando plays a simultaneously tender and explosive Cymbeline; Shanésia Davis is a sexy yet strangely masculine Queen; Joe Sikora gracefully negotiates Posthumus’s switch from loving husband to jealous murderer; and Brian Sills and Juan Chioran round out the ensemble as, respectively, a foppish Cloten and a cold-blooded, catlike Iachimo.

All's well

With her talented ensemble, Gaines nips and tucks the script to underline its fairytale qualities. She highlights the characters of Jupiter and the Soothsayer, two ethereal, otherworldly characters who interpret and guide the story in much the same way as the Storyteller, raising it from just another history or romance into an epic. She also brings out the references to nature that abound in the script: the Cymbeline’s court crumbles, the very elements of Britain—earth, air, fire, and water—rebel. The play is full of fog, stony walls, starry nights, and thunderstorms that give way to twilight and finally a blazing sunrise that sweeps into the audience. In addition to the Philippi’s set, Philip Rosenberg’s stormy lights and Susan Mickey’s lavish costumes leave the audience breathless. Add original music by Lindsey Jones and Rokko Jans, haunting and dramatic, and the audience can’t help but be awed by a full-scale sensory experience. Back in the real world of Navy Pier, Cymbeline slowly fades and its fairytale splendor becomes a series of delightful images and thought-provoking questions. This production is Shakespeare at his most accessible, his most romantic—and his most entertaining. It is a must see.


When Through 11/11: Wed 1PM and 7:30PM, Thu-Fri 7:30PM, Sat 3PM and 8PM, Sun 3PM Where Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand .         Price $54-$70 (for budget tickets, check out Info   312-545-5600 or at

 Photos: Liz Lauren

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