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Habitable Natures in Two Performances of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ Cymbeline

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Sep 21, 2021 at 05:24 PM in Project News

Randall Martin | Project Leader, Cymbeline in the Anthropocene

Habitable Natures in Two Performances of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ Cymbeline

The easing of travel restrictions finally allowed me to see a contributing international production to Cymbeline in the Anthropocene for the first time last week. Montana Shakespeare in the Parks (MSIP) was staging the final two performances of their summer touring season in contrasting locations: Belgrade, a railroad depot and bedroom community outside of Bozeman, also the site of the area’s airport; and Missoula, second largest city in the state, a river valley hub, and home of the University of Montana. 

The Belgrade performance took place in a town park. The MSIP stage was set up on part of its still-green lawn, irrigated from the East Gallatin River, next to tennis courts and other amenities. A warm breeze was blowing, but the air was somewhat smoky from climate-change intensified wildfires which have been burning all summer in California and Oregon. My eyes stung a bit, and at one point during the show I had to get up and bathe them in the park washroom. As many people I met there told me, smoky skies have become the new normal in the Inter-mountain west.  

That was not the only physical intrusion. Planes from the airport roared overhead intermittently. I was reminded of Christopher Schaberg’s discussion of how airport infrastructure and plane travel qualify as a hyperobject of Anthropocene globalization. The noise and visible carbon trails introduced a tangible present-day dialogue with Cymbeline’s main theme of regeneration by the natural world, centred on Imogen’s journey into, and return from, the Welsh wilderness to reform Britain’s ecological myopia under Cymbeline. 
 

Habitable Natures in Two Performances of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ Cymbeline

The incursion of “airportness” also reminded me of our own carbon footprints. I had flown to Bozeman, the only currently permitted way for Canadians to enter the US. My hosts Gretchen Minton, her husband Kevin Brustuen, their son Luke, and I had driven the 7 miles or so from Bozeman to watch the performance. The company’s large trailer—“the whale”—carrying the set, costumes, and props had spent the past two months motoring to more than 70 locations in Montana and surrounding states. Like all rural summer Shakespeare festivals accessed mainly by car or truck, MSIP faces the paradox of trying to shrink its carbon budget while continuing its unique artistic and—in the case of this show—eco-theatrical outreach to diverse communities.  

A third audible sign of today’s climate emergency were the long freight trains that rumbled in the near distance. Their noise occasionally forced the actors to pause their speeches. These trains carry coal from mines in eastern Montana to Pacific-coast ports for export to China. Coal from Montana and elsewhere will fuel the 200 thermal power plants currently under construction. This alarming rise in dirty energy is sure to imperil any realistic global CO2 reductions negotiated at this year’s COP26 summit in Edinburgh.

Cymbeline’s original redemptive pathways of fairy-tale romance, natural regeneration, and intergenerational comedy were given an ecofeminist reinterpretation by dramaturge Gretchen Minton’s highly effective adaptation. It expertly trimmed Shakespeare’s script to a brisk two-hour show. The most significant cut was 5.3, in which the ghosts of Posthumus’s family appeal to Jupiter; the “thunder-master” descends on an eagle to argue that his trials are good for earthlings; and a Jailer yearns for the Christian atonement which coincides historically with Cymbeline’s reign. The elimination of these moments, and especially the Olympian male deity, removed any symbolic justification for Iachimo’s and Posthumus’s callous wager on Imogen’s fidelity on the grounds that its painful correction would serve to chasten and ultimately validate a supposedly more enlightened patriarchal authority. 

Another purposeful change was the cutting of most of the play’s frequent references to “the gods.” For example, Innogen’s prayer in 1.6 before falling asleep became: 

“I have read three hours; mine eyes are weak. 
Fold down the leaf where I have left. To bed. 
Sleep hath seized me wholly. From fairies 
And the tempters of the night guard me, beseech ye.” 

This was not a secularizing move, however, but one which refocused the play’s  spiritual energies in earthly human and non-human agencies, above all in Wales. This organic reorientation was positively reinforced by the gender-shift of Belarius, Cymbeline’s courtier, into Belaria, the king’s displaced and banished wife. Similarly, the princely brothers Guiderius and Arviragus merged into the princess Cadwal (unaware of her royal pedigree until the final scene). In Minton’s script, Belaria was pregnant with Cadwal when she fled the dangers of the factionalized court to nurture her as a wilderness survivor.

Habitable Natures in Two Performances of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ Cymbeline

  

Although Belaria and Cadwal were not born in rural Wales, their sojourn there has naturalized their evolved animal co-dependencies. With a prominent “third eye” sapphire adorning a mountain-goat headdress, her forest-hunter costume, and her pan-pipe, Chelsea David’s self-possessed Belaria became a powerful Earth-mother, wise woman, and eco-warrior. She was determined to raise her daughter away from the decadent overconsumption of Cymbeline’s court, which was visible in the king and Queen’s spectacularly garish costumes. Rachel Cendrick’s punky Cadwal was more wildly accessorized in a deer skull headdress, animal skins, and bone windchimes on her knapsack. She also sported lots of useful little pouches for hunting and foraging—including foraging from picnicking spectators. (To read more about MSIP’s thematically detailed costumes and props, see our blog interviews with costume designer Denise Massman and props designer Nova Grayson Casillo). 

“Feral” Cadwal, as her mother half-jokingly described her, nimbly outpowered the blustering snob Cloten and rejoiced in her triumph with a yodelling wolf-howl which rocked audiences and became her battle-cry. In the end, it was chiefly these two bold women mountaineers who saved the British from the Romans—along with the regretful but still maturing Posthumus—and transformed Cymbeline’s dysfunctional reign. By helping to preserve Imogen to rule as queen after her father’s death, they re-founded the country’s political future, with Rome again welcomed as a cosmopolitan partner rather than a spurious enemy. As Belaria stated in an invented line ratifying Cymbeline’s restoration,

“The powers of the natural world do tune
The harmony of this peace.” 

Amid local signs of the global Anthropocene on display in Belgrade, MSIP’s ecotheatrically recreated Cymbeline presented an alternative ethos to modernity’s entrenched masculinist systems of exploitation in the form of active moral and ecological responsibility. 

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Habitable Natures in Two Performances of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ Cymbeline

The MSIP performers used the local environments of Missoula even more self-consciously to suggest habitable Anthropocene futures. Coincidently, it was a classic summer evening of outdoor Shakespeare. The skies were clearer of smoke and the air felt fresher. The MSIP stage was set up on the Oval commons of the University, still green after a parching summer thanks to precious water from the Clark Fork River. Along one side was a lush grove of mature trees, from which Belaria and Cadwal entered their first scene. As they weaved through the 700+ spectators seated on the lawn, the effect of voices and bodies surging from an oblique green space tangibly enhanced the play’s thematic rhythms of natural energy redirecting flawed human impulses. The wood-burnished set glowed in the setting sunlight, particularly on the metallic disk above the central stage opening (To read more about MSIP’s set, see our blog interview with dramaturge Gretchen Minton for images of Tom Watson’s set design). These atmospheric aesthetics seemed to be collaborating with the play’s original closing lines about Caesar uniting with “the radiant Cymbeline / Which shines here in the west.”  

Habitable Natures in Two Performances of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ Cymbeline

 

In the usual way of final performances of comedy after a long run, the self-confident actors had fun loosening up their speeches and bodies with in-the-moment quips and broad humour. Strolling through the audience, Belaria and Cadwal mingled cheeky invasions of the thin fourth wall. Theirs were most active instances of the MSIP performers gathering in human and non-human opportunities to heighten the production’s tenor of environmental consciousness and reciprocity. 

Habitable Natures in Two Performances of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ Cymbeline

Mikey Gray’s Imogen joined Belaria and Cadwal notably in this regard. She signalled to the audience her hesitation about whether to enter the cave in Wales through facial and body motions, and deftly sorted the variable prompts (“Yes!” “No!”). She also added a line about “the M trail” from the set’s upper level as she struggled through the fictional mountains of Wales. It referred to the large “M” created from painted white rocks embedded in the foothills behind the Oval. Her impromptu observation transformed the Missoula M into a beacon for Milford via the saving hospitality of Belaria and Cadwal—and by association, with the sociable inclinations of Montanans sipping wine and enjoying their picnics. 

Habitable Natures in Two Performances of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ Cymbeline

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Overall, the MSIP production, performed by eight hugely talented actors, was very much an ensemble success. But by virtue of her mobile role, kinetic energy, and emotional intelligence in capturing the extreme range of Imogen’s tragicomic experiences, Gray also stood out as one of the most captivating and moving Imogens I have seen. Having mentioned a few individual performers, and at the risk of writing an over-long review, I must add something briefly about the artistry of the other actors, beginning with the play’s titular character.  

Brandon Burditt made a striking professional debut with MSIP, initially playing Cymbeline as fiercely menacing towards Imogen and others at court. But his rages soon acquired a humanizing vulnerability under the duress of the Queen’s barely cloaked contempt and vaulting ambitions. His uncertainty increased during his confrontation with Lucius (played with cool, not unattractive detachment by Joe Faifer) when he was silently prompted in his speeches by the Queen. As the world spun round him in the final scene, Burditt exchanged priceless looks of incredulity and wonder with the audience. These shared glances secured the integrity of his elation on rediscovering his wife and children, to whom he knelt for forgiveness. 

Rachel Cendrick doubled as the Queen and Cadwal. As the former, dressed in a neon gown and ruff, she served the delicious evil of the wicked stepmother up to what Artistic Director Kevin Asselin called “the ceiling of the surreal” in her conspiratorial winks and self-admiring asides to the audience. There was a striking one-off moment in the Belgrade performance when she walked suddenly into the audience, raised my hosts’ son Luke to his feet, and turned him to face the audience, promising Cornelius

“I will try the forces
Of these thy compounds on such creatures as
We count not worth the hanging.”

Her simultaneously amusing and chilling gestus confirmed Cornelius’s suspicions that the Queen would test her poisons on animals “higher” than cats and dogs to advance her corrupt schemes—which in the Belgrade surroundings linked by association with signs of the real-life Anthropocene. 

Habitable Natures in Two Performances of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ Cymbeline

Her son Cloten was given an unusually nuanced performance by Riley O’Toole. He alternated convincingly between knuckle-headed arrogance, creepy lewdness, and wounded lack of affection from either his mother or Imogen—not that the latter didn’t have iron-clad reasons for rejecting him—before curdling into hatred. Doubling as Cornelius, O’Toole also revealed fine gifts for inward stillness and deadpan humour, and for sensitivity to the subtilties of Shakespeare’s dramatic poetry.   

Joe Faifer’s turn as Iachimo was rangy and materialistic. His coveting of Posthumus and Imogen’s bracelet and diamond added a dimension of extractive hunger to his obvious Machiavellian misogyny; and in Missoula I became especially aware of how his acquisitiveness was ironically anticipated by the poetic slippage between real and metaphorical jewels in Imogen’s and Posthumus’ earlier speeches about one another. Faifer also persuasively negotiated the hazardous double-speak of his first encounter with Imogen in 1.6, and made clear the psychological connexion between his irrepressible empathy (while never leaving his competitive evils in doubt) and the sincerity of his final repentance.   

Robert Hunter Bry brought out the differently conflicted emotions (but shared underlying hatred of women) in Posthumus with convincing force. Prior to his furious rant after being too easily deceived about Imogen by Iachimo in 2.2, Hunter Bry’s consciously under-expressive demeanor conveyed a sense of bewildered emotions being held at bay. These seemed to be feelings of not quite fitting in with the inbred class privileges of the court, and of being not fully worthy of the boundless love of his wife. His non-verbal expressions of inner unease—traceable psychologically to the original loss of his family and the betrayal of his surrogate father Cymbeline—served him well for his later changes of heart in the fast-paced MSIP adaptation. And Posthumus’s infamous slap of Imogen was resolutely hard and shocking. It generated appropriately ambivalent reverberations through the jubilations of the comedic finale, culminating in Hunter Bry’s somewhat hesitantly reciprocated kiss from his euphoric wife. 

Habitable Natures in Two Performances of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ Cymbeline

MSIP veteran Erik Pearson nailed the narrative and dramatic mediator role of Pisanio. From the beginning his deft asides to the audience made clear the ethical depth of his rebellion from below against his repressive and immoral superiors. His deeply sympathetic relationship with Imogen compelled him to reveal the bombshell of his assignment to murder her. Pearson then decisively pivoted in two inventive ways. He turned the cloth with which he wrapped Imogen’s wounded hand after her suicide attempt into the bloody token of her death to Posthumus. He also converted Imogen’s despair into the remedial plot-twist of cross-dressing as Fidele to meet and serve Lucius (3.4).

Director Kevin Asselin told me he found this scene the hardest one in the play to stage effectively. But in truth, Cymbeline has many challenging scenes for a company to negotiate. The concluding one of self-consciously over-the-top surprises and revelations walks a particularly fine line between generic plausibility and corpsing farce. But Asselin and his colleagues managed to pull it off with tremendous elan. They also successfully overcame perhaps the biggest challenge of the play: to make its triple entwining narratives clear to spectators, most of whom would be encountering them for the first time. Proof of this seemed to be reflected in the faces and expressions of audiences in both Belgrade and Missoula. As a person next to me said afterwards, “When I read the synopsis, I didn’t understand the story. But the actors made it wonderfully clear.”  I feel lucky and honoured to have slipped through the pandemic minefield to see these ecodramaturgically creative and rewarding performances. 

In the coming weeks, the Cymbeline in the Anthropocene team will post more about MSIP’s Cymbeline, including blog-interviews with the actors. Stay tuned!  

Habitable Natures in Two Performances of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ Cymbeline