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Jessica Boone Delivers a Charmed Performance in Cymbeline

Imogen It

The Houston Shakespeare Festival is now lighting up the evening sky over the grassy hill at Miller Outdoor Theatre. In this bucolic setting, the great bard's poetry and the actors' energy spin like fairy dust through the miasma of the warm night. The stage lights come up, the sun goes down and all that's left are a sweet Gulf breeze and Shakespeare's enchanting power. That's especially true with this year's charmed production of the romance Cymbeline.

One of his later works, Shakespeare's Cymbeline is a strange concoction of characters and plot twists. All sorts of images and devices from earlier plays are thrown into the mix. There's the sleeping potion from Romeo and Juliet, an evil Iago-like conspirator and the foolish Lear-like King Cymbeline, who doesn't know a good daughter when he sees one. But under Carolyn Houston Boone's direction, it doesn't matter that this romantic comedy is one of Shakespeare's lesser works. Boone and her cast have found the magic in the characters and made them unique to this little romance.

The central plot focuses on the good and fair Imogen (played by an exquisite Jessica Boone), who some say is Shakespeare's most perfect heroine. She has married Posthumus (Andrew Love) behind her father's back. Posthumus is very noble of spirit, but he's not royal. When King Cymbeline (Philip Lehl) discovers the union, he banishes the orphan Posthumus to Italy and tries to make Imogen marry Cloten (Philip Hays) instead. Oafish and ape-like, the aptly named Cloten is the son of Queen (Bree Welch), Cymbeline's new wife. It is really Queen who wants her son to marry Imogen; in this way, she hopes to secure the future of the crown.

Jessica Boone (with Philip Hays) is exquisite.
Pim Lim
Jessica Boone (with Philip Hays) is exquisite.

A secondary plot revolves around Cymbeline's long lost sons and a tertiary story follows a war going on between England and the Romans. These are the plot machinations that send us from England to Italy and back to the caves of England's rugged woods. When we meet Imogen's brothers, who were kidnapped long ago, and the naughty Iachimo (Bernardo Cubria), who convinces the banished Posthumus to despise his beloved Imogen, we laugh and giggle, despite a beheading in the fourth act and a war in Act V.

Boone's vision infuses this production with circus-like joy. Margaret Monostory Crowley's costumes are all bright colors, with ruffles (even on the men) and big poufs of fabric. Jonathan Middents's cartoonish set is made out of whimsically painted flats full of curlicues and painted-on drapes. And the cast is just as clownish. Lehl is having the time of his life as the foolish, foppish Cymbeline. Welch's Queen cackles like every evil stepmother ever imagined. Thomas Prior, as faithful servant Pisanio, is both sensible and funny, as is Rutherford Cravens as the cave-­dwelling Belarius. But none of these supporting characters could save a show that did not have at its center a lovely and formidable Imogen. Happily, Jessica Boone delivers a charmed performance.

Less successful is director Sidney Berger's plodding Julius Caesar. The story of revenge and misplaced trust feels politically relevant, but this production makes no apparent connections between Shakespeare's deadly tale and today's political landscape. Instead, the story comes off as stilted and academic. Even Middents's blocky set of platforms and stairs feels uninspired.

There are some terrific performances in the production. Philip Lehl as Mark Antony had the opening-night crowd in hushed suspense during the famous funeral oration, proclaiming, "Friends, Romans, countrymen...I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him," all the while egging the Romans on toward revenge for Caesar's assassination. Also, both Jennifer Cherry as Portia, Brutus's wife, and Bree Welch as Calpurnia, Caesar's wife, pulled the audience out of the glaze of an otherwise soporific production.

Still, nothing can take away the charm of listening to great poetry while sitting under the dark gorgeousness of a nighttime sky.

 
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