On June 25, I interviewed Fred Sullivan, Jr.,the director of Cymbeline, this summer’s free production on Boston Common, presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. The venue for our conversation was the stunning, historic Boston Athenaeum
Fred Sullivan’s Shakespeare credentials are impressive. He has directed and acted in more than fifty productions in 28 of the Bard’s plays. (Only nine more for the complete set!) He’s logged a dozen performances for CSC, including the Duke of Buckingham (Richard III), Capulet, (Romeo and Juliet) Malvolio, (Twelfth Night), Gloucester (King Lear) and Jaques (As You Like It). Fred has Shakespeare in his bones and in his heart.
My qualifications are … thinner. I have happily attended ten CSC performances over the years and seen Shakespeare in theaters around Boston and the Berkshires. But until recently, I felt like a poseur. I’d walk out of the theater knowing I’d missed at least 25% of the words and probably important bits of plot as well. I tried reading the plays in advance, but that was a bust: nearly every line led to the footnotes, where continuity and pleasure go to die. I never made it to the end of Act One.
My relationship to Shakespeare changed a few years ago, when I signed up for “Shakespeare Workout” — an acting class that welcomed non-actors — where I was assigned speeches from King Learand Troilus and Cressidato “perform” for my fellow students. I repeated those lines for them again and again. And again. I listened to my classmates practice their soliloquies over and over, again and again. And I couldn’t get enough.
For someone who is easily bored, I was fascinated as we discovered meanings and exposed emotions word-by-word, line-by-line. I had discovered my portal into Shakespeare world: Rehearsal.
That was the beginning of my Shakespeare crush, which I pursued by sitting in on Actors Shakespeare Projectrehearsals of Julius Caesar, Richard III, and Twelfth Night.
I was delighted when Steve Mailer, CSC’s Artistic Director, invited me to take part in the Boston Athenaeum conversation, partly because I love talking to Fred, and partly because it gave me an excuse to drop in on as many rehearsals as I could get to — from first table read to final dress.
I knew next to nothing about Cymbeline, which isn’t surprising since the play is rarely performed and hard to pigeonhole. It’s not a comedy because it doesn’t end with a wedding. It’s not a tragedy because only bad guys get killed and their demise is more than justified.
It’s has been called a romance, a tragicomedy, a fairy tale, and a problem play. It’s profoundly silly and very busy, with half a dozen subplots. It also features beautiful poetry and lovely lyrics. Fred points out that Cymbelineis an expose of toxic masculinity and a tribute to a woman who persists.
The CSC production features a swashbuckling sword-and-stick fight, charming music performed by a talented and extremely attractive cast, masks, pratfalls, handstands, passionate kisses, disguises and vicious villains in three nefarious flavors: ambitious, fatuous, and pure snake.
Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s last plays, is a bubbling stew of savory plot points and images from earlier works:
A cup of Othello: a man willing to believe his virtuous wife has betrayed him on the basis of a purloined trifle and the lies of an infamous rat fink.
A cup and a half of Romeo and Juliet: Young lovers, forbidden to marry, who marry anyway. He leaves to save his life. She pines prettily. An apothecary provides a potion that simulates her death, which leads to her burial and eventual resurrection.
A tablespoon of As You Like It: Royalty hidden in the forest and a girl who dresses as a boy and finally finds her way back to home and happiness.
A teaspoon of Much Ado About Nothing: A battling She and He, who verbally thrust and parry, although he is totally out of her league and a wedding is out of the question.
A painful pinch of King Lear: A foolish king ignores the wise heart of his dutiful daughter and follows another female relation who is rotten to the core and after his crown.
I detected a soupcon of The Tempest: A plucky daughter who willhave the man she chooses, as well as traces of dreams, ghosts, soothsayers, loyal retainers, and Roman centurions.
I’m probably missing some ingredients, but it makes a fine dish for a summe’rs night: gorgeous poetry, 400-year-old jokes that still land, singing and dancing and being part a big, diverse, and happy neighborhood that appears every summer on Boston Common for a few short weeks and then vanishes for another year: Boston’s own Brigadoon.