A plucky young heroine who dons male apparel as disguise. A villain who plots to make our hero suspect his young wife of adultery. A potion that simulates death without that pesky fatal result. A royal father who rejects his beloved daughter. Children separated at birth and reunited at long last in adulthood. An ambitious queen without a moral scruple to her name. A bit of Ancient Roman history thrown in for good measure.

Care to venture a guess as to which Shakespeare play I’m talking about?

The answer, as any true Shakespeare buff will surely tell you, is neither As You Like it, Othello, Romeo And Juliet, King Lear, A Comedy Of Errors, Hamlet, or Antony And Cleopatra (though the abovementioned plot threads appear to have been borrowed from this half-dozen or so of Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits). No, it’s Cymbeline, reputedly Shakespeare’s fifth-from-last play, originally classified as a tragedy, later redubbed a romance, and as performed at A Noise Within under the truly inspired direction of Bart DeLorenzo, about as hilarious a comedic romp as any theatergoer seeking escapist entertainment could wish for.

 Unlike Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo And Juliet, Cymbeline’s title character plays only a supporting role in the proceedings. It is in fact King Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen around which our tale revolves, one which begins with her wedding to the nobly-raised orphan Posthumous, a marriage which does not sit at all well with Cymbeline’s second wife, the evil Queen, who wishes for her own selfish reasons to see her son Cloten wed to the royal heiress. Succumbing to the seductive Queen’s persuasive ways, Cymbeline exiles the insufficiently royal Posthumous to Rome, where the young man’s supposed friend Iachimo, in Iago-like fashion, decides to convince Posthumous that his wife has betrayed him with another man.

This being accomplished, a vengeful Posthumous sends his servant Pisanio to kill Imogen, but Pisanio goes against his master’s will and convinces Imogen to disguise herself in male apparel as “Fidele,” the better to prove her innocence. In short order, Fidele has been befriended by a pair of rustic brothers, who we soon learn are her very own siblings, kidnapped in their youth by the exiled Belarius as payback for Cymbeline’s false accusation of treason.

 Meanwhile, the wicked Queen plots to poison both Cymbeline and Imogen with the sleeping potion Dr. Cornelius has, unbeknownst to her, substituted for the considerably more venomous mixture she had in mind.

Add to this Cymbeline’s refusal to pay this year’s tribute to Roman ambassador Caius Lucius, a “No way, Jose” which results in a declaration of war between Rome and Britain and you’ve got one of Shakespeare’s most complicated, if not downright schizophrenic, plots.

Fortunately, under director DeLorenzo’s supremely imaginative baton, a company of eight principal players embodying nineteen different roles (twenty if you add “Fidele”) manages not only to make Cymbeline surprisingly easy to follow, but consistently hilarious, with even the beheading of one character, whose headless body ends up in bed with Imogen, played deliciously, delightfully for laughs.

DeLorenzo’s mastery is evident from the get-go, in a brief prologue which has his troupe of players trying on costumes from assorted better-known Shakespeare plays only to have “Romeo” and “Juliet” turned into Posthumous and Imogen, thereby setting the tale of Cymbeline in motion.

Another of DeLorenzo’s brilliant “It’s Only A Play” conceits is to have all but one performer undertake dual roles, with Imogen’s transformation into “Fidele” making for across-the-board doubling up if you wish. With the exception of Imogen, these pairs of roles are deliberately mirror-opposite in nature, a single player embodying both the stalwart Posthumous and the foppish Cloten, another the conniving Queen and the warm-hearted Belarius, still another the devious Iachimo and the noble Caius Lucius, and so forth.

DeLorenzo and company avoid potential pitfalls (i.e., tragic elements that might in lesser hands prove heavy-handed) by playing them for over-the-top laughs, all the while keeping Imogen and Posthumous grounded in reality, the better to keep us invested in the young lovers’ (hopefully) happy ending.

 It’s hard to imagine a better cast than the one assembled at A Noise Within’s year-old Pasadena digs, beginning with the captivating young English actress Helen Sadler as our plucky heroine Imogen. Adam Haas Hunter doubles terrifically as an entirely dreamy Postumous and a goofy, dandified mama’s boy of a Cloten. ANW Resident Artist Joel Swetow does his customary fine work as Cymbeline and as Philario, Posthumous’s Roman host. The splendid Francia DiMase not only gets to play two different roles, she gets the gender-bending bonus of going from glamorous Queen to bearded, rough-hewn Belarius. Andrew Elvis Miller’s deliciously oily Iachimo makes for a striking contrast with the stalwart Caius Lucius, the former’s extended bedroom scene opposite a sleeping Imogen a wordless star turn that matches the best of any silent movie comedy great. Time Winters is marvelous as always as Posthumous’s loyal servant Pisanio and a Gaoler. Virtually every other speaking role goes to the dynamic (and versatile) duo of Jarrett Sleeper and Paul David Story, who get to alternate between noble Gentlemen and Lords and the spunky, hunky woodsmen who welcome Fidele into their family long before they learn that “he” is actually their royal sister Imogen. ANW interns Annalise Aguirre, Kevin Angulo, James Ferrero and Jessie Losch do “background work” to fine effect.

 A sensational production design only adds to the effectiveness of DeLorenzo’s imaginative concept, most notably Angela Balough Calin’s bevy of costumes, mashing up Regency-era empire gowns à la Pride And Prejudice with the extravagant finery and wigs you might see in a Restoration comedy by Wycherly, Congreve, or Aphra Behn. Kudos go also to wig, hair, and makeup designer Monica Lisa Sabedra, particularly for Cloten’s outrageously foot-high wig. Prop master Kristina Teves surrounds the A Noise Within thrust stage with an abundance of props that the company might be using were they performing one of Shakespeare’s myriad of other plays. Scenic designer Keith Mitchell’s ingenious, era-unspecific set quickly transforms from locale to locale. Ken Booth’s lighting design is another dazzler, as is composer/sound designer John Ballinger’s Danny Elfman-like score. (Acoustics, which were problematic in A Noise Within’s maiden Pasadena season, seemed fine this time round.) Fight choreographer Ken Merckx deserves a round of applause for Cymbeline’s action sequences, including one particularly thrilling swordfight sequence.

Additional production credits are shared by production manager Meghan Gray, technical director Andrew Ellis, costume shop manager Kellsy MacKilligan, scenic artists Amanda Leigh Smith and Seth Walker, costuming intern Sarahlena Banu, and production assistant Rachel Yaron. Gray is stage manager and Vanessa Cortez assistant stage manager.

Though Cymbeline runs a hearty two hours and forty five minutes (including intermission), it seems considerably shorter thanks to DeLorenzo’s effervescent staging and an all-around splendid cast, who turn potential fizzle into irresistible sizzle, making for an auspicious season opener for the always impressive A Noise Within.

A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd, Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
October 25, 2012
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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