Midsommer Flight, Chicago

Written by:
Nancy S. Bishop
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Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s late and rarely performed plays. but with a trimmed-down script and engaging movement and music, Midsommer Flight overcomes the Bard’s many plot complications and creates a charming summer fantasy. 

Beth Wolf’s direction of this tragicomic story by a cast of 18 is a management achievement in itself. She deals smartly with some of Shakespeare’s usual themes, such as cross-dressing, deceit and adultery, a beheading (offstage), a wicked stepmother queen, long lost children, and magical potions. It’s a screwball plot, but in the end, true love reigns and long-lost sons are restored to their father. 

It’s truly a delight to see the play performed on a Sunday afternoon in the beautiful Chicago Women’s Park & Gardens on the near south side. The company will stage Cymbeline in five more city parks for the next five weekends, through August 13. Their performances use natural sound and sunlight as illumination, as was done in the Bard’s days.

Ashley Graham and Keenan Odenkirk as Imogen and Posthumus with Barry Irving (center) as King Cymbeline.
Photo by Tom McGrath, TCMcG Photography.

Cymbeline Is set in Ancient Britain (probably c. 10–14 CE) and based on legends about the early Celtic British King Cunobeline. As the play opens, the king’s daughter Imogen (Ashley Graham) is being secretly married to a commoner named Posthumus (Keenan Odenkirk)—a match that doesn’t meet with the king’s approval. Imogen and Posthumus exchange jewelry—a ring for him and a bracelet for her—to mark their love (and to add later complications). Cymbeline (Barry Irving) and his wife, the evil queen stepmother (Talia Langman—who gave a fine portrayal of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in When There Were Nine) want Imogen to marry her son, the comically villainous Cloten (John Drea). Cymbeline banishes Posthumus to Italy because he wants his only child to marry properly and provide a royal heir to the throne. 

In Italy, we meet another comic villain, Iachimo (Shane Rhoades), who taunts Posthumus about his chaste and beautiful wife and bets him that he can seduce Imogen—and provide proof of the act. (He does so with clumsy fervor.) Imogen determines she will travel to reunite with her husband and with the help of her loyal servant Pisanio (Bradley Halverson) disguises herself as a young man named Fidele. (OI course, no one recognizes her in her disguise, not even those who love her the most.)  PIsanio provides Fidele with a special potion from the queen to help her in her travels. The plot also includes Caius Lucius (Chris Lysy), the Roman ambassador to Britain, who demands the payments due to Rome by Cymbeline’s kingdom. Another subplot features Belarius (Jessica Goforth) and two adopted sons, who meet their real father by play’s end.

There are many more subplots and complications in this odd play, written late in the playwright’s  career—probably first performed in 1611. The experience of watching Cymbeline in the park is worth your time. However I suggest you read the synopsis (or the play’s Wikipedia page) and you’ll more easily sort out the characters and plot points during the performance.

Musicians perform in Cymbeline. Photo by Tom McGrath, TCMcG Photography.

Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom comments that by this time in his career Shakespeare had “wearied of history and come to the end of both comedy and tragedy.” The title character himself is a cipher with minimal connection to the various plots. Of the three main male characters, Cloten and Iachimo are bumbling villains and Posthumus is a blockhead. Imogen is one of the few admirable characters and has some lovely speeches.

The play moves quickly with multiple exits enabling smooth scene changes. (Jeremiah Barr is scenic and props designer.) Performances by Graham and Odenkirk as the two lovers are appealing and Drea offers an energetic portrayal for the hotheaded Cloten. (The scene where he arrives with musicians to waken Imogen with an off-key song is very funny. We saw Drea most recently playing Marc Chagall in Chagall in School.) Rhoades’ Iachimo brings an antic personality to his role. 

The work of composer and music director Jack Morsovillo adds a festive touch to the experience. Rachel M. Sypniewski’s costumes are handsome and well designed for quick changes. Hazel Marie Flowers-McCabe is stage manager. 

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