Sullivan’s touch makes ‘Cymbeline’ a comic delight

King Cymbeline’s court in Commonwealth Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline.” Photographer: Evgenia Eliseeva

BOSTON – It’s unusual to point right at a director when beginning a theater review but in this case, it’s a must.

For the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s annual run on the Boston Common, Artistic Director Steven Maler made the decision to hire as the director Chelsea native, Fred Sullivan, Jr.

Most of Sullivan’s career has been spent in Rhode Island, as a longtime company member of the Trinity Repertory Company, as the resident director at the Gamm Theatre, and teaching at Gamm and Rhode Island School of Design, but  he has come up Route 95 12 times in the past to work for Maler on the Common.

Sullivan said the chance to direct “Cymbeline” meant he could strike the work off his own personal “bucket list” of Shakespearean works he had yet to perform in or direct.

Sullivan has performed many of Shakespeare’s greatest comic roles and has a masterful sense of comic timing. He has directed “Cymbeline” with an eye to exploring its comic side, and his influence can be seen  from the leads all the way down to the minor roles, such as a  spaced-out soothsayer named  Philharmonius (Gregory Herman) ,  a smirking Cornelius (Mihir Kumar), the doctor who can’t conceal his distaste for The Queen and even the three lords (Nigel Richards, John Hardin, Chet R. Davino)  who are forced to put up with an obnoxious character called Cloten.

The backstory of “Cymbeline” has King Cymbeline (Tony Estrella), king of Britain, ruling over a household that has seen its share of turmoil. A widower with three children, he marries a woman (Jeanine Kane) with the aforementioned grown son named Cloten (an excellent Kelby T. Akin). The Queen would like Cloten to marry Princess Imogen (Nora Eschemheimer), Cymbeline’s sole heir since his two sons were kidnapped some 20 years ago. Instead, Imogen takes up with and marries Posthumus Leonatus (Daniel Duque-Estrada), Cymbeline’s ward who also grew up in the court, and who cuts a dashing figure but is a bit more subdued than the others.

Daniel Duque-Estrada as Posthumus, Nora Eschenheimer as Imogen in “Cymbeline.” Photographer: Evgenia Eliseeva

 Angered, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus from the kingdom, despite Imogen’s pleas. “You bred him as my playfellow.”

The performances are a delight across the board, especially those who choose to let it all hang out and go over the top, just as their director would have done.

Kelby T. Akin is as good as it gets as Cloten, to the manor born as the son of the Queen and a possible heir to the throne if a way can be found to get rid of Imogen. 

He shines in his “Do you know who I am?” moment, his fatal duel with Guiderius (Jonathan Higginbotham), who just happens to be the long-lost son of the King Cymbeline and the actual heir to the throne.

That allows Sullivan to have some fun with Cloten’s head, made up as a smiley-faced painted ball that could be played with and booted around the stage.

Jesse Hinson authors a swaggering, cocksure Iachimo. You can all but hear the hissing in the audience as he bets with Posthumus that he can get Imogen to betray her honor, and sets in motion events that will very nearly result in Imogen’s death.

In an interview, Sullivan noted the “toxic masculinity” of the piece which manifests itself in several of the characters, but also noted the remarkable resilience of Imogen.

Indeed, Imogen could be a modern-day feminist heroine, standing her ground and refusing to abandon Posthumus, escaping certain death and when necessary taking on the identity of a Roman page named Fidele and joining the Roman forces in the war against Cymbeline and his court.

And what would Shakespeare on the Common be without the redoubtable Remo Airaldi, a bedrock each summer, this time as Pisanio, Leonatus’ loyal manservant who becomes Imogen’s servant after Posthumus is banned form the kingdom. Leonatus, in a jealous rage, implores him to kill Imogen but he cannot do it.

Eventually, we ae introduced to a former lord in Cymbeline’s court named Belarius (Tom Gleadow), who was wronged by Cymbeline 20 years before and absconded to the mountains of Wales with Cymbeline’s sons Guiderius and Arvigerus (Michael Underhill). Living and hunting in the mountains for many years, they are delightfully rough around the edges and eventually aid Cymbeline in his war against the Romans.

 “Cymbeline,” one of Shakespeare’s final works, is often described as a dramedy, with dramatic elements – death and suicide among them  — but also greatly infused with humor, and it’s safe to say that Sullivan has found every bit of it and then some.

The CSC program always offers a synopsis as a road map, which comes in handy here when all the plot threads tend to get a bit overpowering. Somehow, it will all come together with a happy bow tied around it by the end.

Special mention to the musical interludes, with the original music composed by Milly Massey, including a ditty that the entire cast participates in

Elisabetta Polito’s costumes are another example of having fun with the piece, crossing genres with Edwardian gear for the Brits and the Romans outfitted in garb from Caesar’s era.

While Shakespeare on the Common remains free as it always has been, the $600,000 needed to put it on requires fund-raising, with chair rentals close to the stage, and a donation of $20 is suggested for those able to afford it. Donations can also be made to roving volunteers at the information booth, or by text.

The fairy tale vibe that Sullivan intentionally creates lifts “Cymbeline” and allows it at times to floats as if on a cloud above the stage , a happy marriage of director and some adroit casting, and some great summer fun under the stars.

The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of William Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline.” Directed by Fred Sullivan, Jr. At the Parkman Bandstand on the Boston Common through Aug. 4. Free, but suggested donation is $20. Chair rentals also available.

Jonathan Higginbotham* as Guiderius, Kelby Akin as Cloten in “Cymbeline.” Photographer: Evgenia Eliseeva