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Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Robert Hunter Bry as Posthumus

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Nov 08, 2021 at 03:27 AM in Project News

Our interviews with the cast of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks' Cymbeline concludes with Robert Hunter Bry, who played the touring production’s Posthumus. Read on for Robert’s perspectives on Posthumus’ relationships to power, masculinity, and his adoptive family, and about the performance locations Robert found truly unforgettable. 

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Robert Hunter Bry as Posthumus

RM: Have you had Shakespeare acting  experience before? What did you bring to this  production in these roles?

RHB: I do have some experience in Shakespeare, a lot actually, I’ve been doing it for a while. I studied it since college and I played a couple of regional Shakespeare summer theatres, and I’ve done a couple of Shakespeare plays when I was in Chicago with some theatres there. I've been in love with it for a long time. Even as a kid, you know, I would go to see local Shakespeare Theatre, so I’ve been familiar with his work for a long time, and I’ve been participating in it for about five or six years now. 

RM: That's fantastic--both your interest and your experience--and that shone through I think in your playing of Posthumus. I assume this might be the first time you've played Posthumus?

RHB: Yeah, it is my first time playing that role! It’s also my first time performing in Cymbeline

RM: Yes, absolutely. And just remind me, in the Montana production, did you play any other roles? Did you double anything or were you just playing Posthumus?

RHB: Just Posthumus! I was one of the only actors--with the actors who played Imogen and Pisanio-- in the show who don’t really double at all. Though I did help with a scene change at one point, getting a chair out of a trunk, which I guess you could argue that was me playing Servant Number Two. 

RM: Yes, that’s about the full extent of my acting experience, too: second spear carrier. 

RHB: [laughs] Yeah! I’ve been that person too. For me basically Posthumus was really the only character I was truly inhabiting in Cymbeline so it was a privilege to have that one character to focus on. 

RM: Absolutely a privilege, and it's a very rich and complex role as you know, and as you conveyed. Can you tell me something about how you prepared for that role in the  Montana production?

RHB: He is deceived by Iachimo, he is deceived into believing that his wife has been unfaithful. When I was looking over the script I was thinking ‘you idiot, why would you believe him?’ The evidence that Iachimo presents is so not convincing to me, Robert, looking at it logically. And so, something that Kevin [Asselin] helped me with in rehearsal, and something that I discovered with our adaptation as well as drawing from source material from the full-length play, was knowing that Posthumus is coming into the play extremely insecure in his relationship with Imogen because he is beneath her in status, wealth and land.

He is an orphan who was raised knowing he is not an elite, and so it’s not unlike Othello and the way he has this barrier between him and his wife--in that play, not being of the same race--it’s a status barrier and a class barrier that makes him really insecure in the relationship and not really understanding why this princess who is above him would want to be with somebody so far beneath her. I think that is part of what makes him so easy to deceive, and leads him into believing that she’s been unfaithful. Even though he is deeply in love with her, he is so insecure. 

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Robert Hunter Bry as Posthumus

RM: Do you think that insecurity also stems from the fact that his father is essentially absent? Of course his father, in the original version, does appear as a ghost later in the play. Gretchen [Minton]’s cut eliminated that, partly for reasons of time, partly because she was  doing an ecofeminist adaptation of the play. Did you imagine a kind of absent-present relationship with a father figure or a father?

RHB: Certainly. In that whole sequence where the ghosts of his parents come down and Jupiter descends from the Heavens is a bit challenging to incorporate into a production of the play, so I think it made a lot of sense cutting it. But it was helpful for me for research purposes. I mean, his name literally is Posthumus because he is “after death:” his parents both died, his father before he was born and his mother died in childbirth. So it is an absent father but an absent mother as well.

I think that Kevin and I kind of built his relationship with Cymbeline the king as if Cymbeline is who he’s looked to as a father for the rest of his life. So the way Kevin directed the beginning of the show with Posthumus being banished by Cymbeline and cast out by him--certainly this is a very traumatizing experience, with someone you have looked at like a father for your whole life and they’re completely turning their back on you. That sort of traumatic banishment ending that relationship with Cymbeline because of Posthumus’ relationship with Imogen would be something that would disturb anyone so much. It would be so challenging and painful to deal with.

He’s in a horrible mental state for the entire play. I think I was talking with some of the other actors and saying, I don’t think I truly smile at any point until the final scene of this play. It’s this never-ending trauma-after-trauma that the poor guy is going through, so he’s in a very fragile mental state from the beginning to the end because of the way these relationships are being severed. 

RM: I think you conveyed very well that sense of residual rupture in his psychological serenity and confidence, and also that sense that he’s carrying this bewilderment around with him; he’s always slightly detached from events. I thought that was very effective and subtle. 

RHB: That is something Kevin and I worked on a lot. There is no safe place for him at any point in this play until the very end, really; he’s constantly in this state of shock and confusion, of bewilderment.

RM: Even at the end I think he’s still transitioning to something. 

RHB: Yeah!

RM: To go back to what we were talking about a little bit earlier, he is Posthumus, which means everything is always after, everything is always catching up with him. He’s always in a belated state, a kind of after-effect state. His sense of time is always disrupted and disconnected too, and that makes him a very rich psychological study. Again, this is a bit like Othello, whose background is all the more mysterious, and has also got this sense of an after-effect, of a not-quite, of insecurity not only because of his race but also his class. Those things are also quite true of Posthumus.

I want to ask about one specific moment, which I think was the most intense moment of your performance: during Posthumus’ misogynist rant after he’s been deceived by Iachimo. He goes into this furious rant which you conveyed in a riveting way as though he was becoming psychologically unhinged. Thinking again somewhat of belatedness, how does he come out of that in the course of the play? To some extent the original play gives you more scope to take him out of that because you have more material to work with; this cut made that more challenging. 

RHB: Certainly that was one of the biggest challenges of the show, because he has such a long break. He disappears for a long time after that speech, and then he comes back with an honest soliloquy and it’s a complete one-eighty. The thing that I like about it is very often, and if you look at other Shakespearean husbands who are deceived similarly such as Othello or even Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing, they either murder or attempt to murder or wish death on their wives, only to discover that the wife was faithful after all, and only then do they repent. But Posthumus repents before he learns that Imogen was faithful. When he comes out of that misogynistic, hateful perspective and he sees the light before, she still thinks she’s betrayed him at that point, but he still repents for what he’s done.

Working with Kevin and Gretchen on that was very challenging, figuring out where that comes from, and I think what we landed on was Posthumus being someone who is so young, and so inexperienced. Receiving the information that Imogen has been killed after he sends this letter ordering Pisanio to do so, and receiving the bloody cloth and realizing the reality that he’s actually gone through with it--that this isn’t just something going on in his head, that she has truly been killed--shocks him back into reality. And that is when he realizes the gravity of the murder he’s committed, or arranged to have committed. And he’s so young--Kevin and I decided on an age of about eighteen or nineteen for him, and hitting this sort of shock opens his eyes and makes him realize the weight of what [violence] is.

Another thing that we settled on too was Posthumus being banished for many months. The timeline of the play is vague in the script but when he gets that bloody cloth, he’s returned home to England again with the Roman army. So after living in this world of Italy, Rome, this very different culture where he’s been able to escape from who he is and his upbringing and all that, returning home for the first time and where that relationship with Imogen was created--it ties into the themes about escaping the superficiality of the more urban, booming metropolis of Rome and returning to the countryside. That’s hitting him all at once, and that’s where the repentance comes from. 

RM: That is very intelligently put, and thoughtful. One more specific thing about that shift. It’s a line that has become a bit controversial in academic criticism in act 5, scene 1, when he’s returned and he’s forgiven Imogen, and he says to the audience “How many must murder wives much better than themselves for wrying but a little.” The question is, whether when he speaks that line, is Posthumus saying that he still believes that Imogen has been in the wrong? That he’s forgiving her, but despite the fact that she’s somewhat guilty? Or is that a more general proposition to the audience and is he being critical of their general values? How did you work with that line?

RHB: I think it must have been remarkably progressive for Elizabethan times to say that infidelity is a relatively minor offense. I think that is what he’s saying: yes, she cheated on me, yes, she betrayed me, but she was still a good person and is still better than me in many ways--and that to murder someone for that is a disproportionate reaction, and that is not justified. And that is where he separates himself from Claudio or Othello, is that they don’t repent that they find out their wives were faithful. Posthumus still thinks she was unfaithful, but he realizes that to murder someone because of that is not right. He’s learning that, and this is the moral decision that he makes: punishing someone in such a grave, murderous way is not right. 

RM: That makes a great deal of sense in the original context, especially, when husbands murdering wives was presented over and over in the Elizabethan drama as a moral issue, usually juxtaposed against the legal framework in which it was legally wrong, but somehow, psychologically or morally or dramatically, it was partially justified. Shakespeare here is saying quite the opposite: that it is not justified, that not only is it legally but it is also morally wrong. 

Could I pivot a little away from your character and to how you performed this in the actual environments, in all the 30-odd places you played all around Montana and in some neighbouring states? I saw you of course in the final two performances in Belgrade and in Missoula. The whole production and you individually as performers were responding to the local surroundings, environments, and audiences. I wonder if you can describe particular, outstanding moments where you thought Posthumus was relating to the local environment or to the local audiences, or both? 

RHB: Many! I’m sure you saw in Belgrade, where they had that train going through town, and Brandon [Burditt] as Cymbeline was really giving it to that train! He was delivering that speech as though that train was part of what’s happening and the urgency of it all blended in. Depending on the location and setup, sometimes we’d be very close to the audience where I could get right up in their faces during the soliloquies and do everything directly to them that way, and sometimes there would be a tremendous distance between us, so I would really have to project, to reach more with my body and everything I was doing. Adjusting for that is certainly something you get used to. 

Other specifics have to do with the extent to which we were able to build the set on tour. There are certain performances we’d have to move indoors, where if the setup doesn’t allow for it we only build the upper portion of the set. For example there was one beautiful setup in White Sulphur Springs where there was this castle behind us, so it felt like I was looking up at Cymbeline’s castle on this hill. Certainly in the fight scenes I had to adjust a lot to being on the hill, but in terms of my connection with what Posthumus is doing and thinking, all I had to do was look up at the castle, and look up at the mountains opposite that--it immerses you so much, and you start drawing from that. When you have views like that, it makes it pretty easy to believe that you really are in Britain, or in Rome, or wherever you have to be. You feel like you are so connected to the type of places Shakespeare was writing these shows to take place in. 

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Robert Hunter Bry as Posthumus

RM: Any other instances of natural environments and audiences you connected with? You had several moments of direct address to the audience and where your character is being shaped by that.

RHB: There was a stretch there, doing that misogynistic monologue where I would look in front of me and by coincidence it would be all women sitting in front of me, and I mean--that’s a hard sell, certainly. It feels personal, I’m sure both for them and for me. Certainly the moments where he discusses marriage, if I could spot a couple in the audience I would direct it at them, and sometimes they would give me a reaction or a facial expression or a non-verbal reaction that would make me feel like I was really connecting with someone. In the last scene, too, because it does end with such a joyous note, audiences tend to react pretty strongly to it. There are so many crazy reveals and revelations that just being able to absorb whatever responses they were giving us during that scene--applause, or laughter, or sometimes even gasps--as an actor, that fills you so much. It gives you energy. Brandon’s ability to work the audience and to connect with them and draw out so many different kinds of reactions was really invaluable for the whole cast, for everyone on stage. We all rode those coattails in terms of that connection to the audience, and we loved ending on such a high note.

For a play with so many different subplots and at times convoluted stretches, that final scene anchored us really well, partially due to the brilliant way that Gretchen adapted it and cut it, and partially due to the way that Kevin directed it, and partially due to the way that Brandon helped pull it together. I think that scene was a real kind of connection and communal bonding with the audience. It was a joy for me.

RM: I know exactly what you mean! That’s what I felt in the last scene in both of the performances that I saw. The audience is with you both in the internal action of the play, but also with you as performers, performing this deliberately over-the-top scene. I mean, it is Shakespeare making fun of himself, asking “are you going to really go with this? Here's what you all want: you all want things to work out for the best? Well, I'm going to give it to you!”

RHB: It really is every plot twist you could fit in! “You want that plot twist, with the cross-dressing? And this plot twist, with the secret royal parentage? Oh, here’s a plot twist where someone disguises himself as a soldier! I’ve got them all there for you!”

RM: Absolutely! It treads this fine line of having to take it seriously and not let it descend entirely into farce. You did that successfully while also beautifully acknowledging in your non-verbal gestures, glances, that kind of thing, that yes--we’re in this together. It becomes this huge kind of meta-theatrical party. I could see you having fun with that. Before that, which would you say was the hardest scene to pull off?

RHB: The hardest thing for me was the lead-up to that misogynistic rant, the moment when he snaps--it happens in his head when he suddenly thinks that Imogen did betray him, and that Iachimo did sleep with her. That snap where he has to convince himself that it did happen, and for me, selling that he would believe that without making him look like a complete idiot was challenging.

Another barrier was the previous scene--it was a really fun scene for us to work on--but this is his first scene with Iachimo when they make the wager. It was so rewarding working on that scene every night, but the most challenging part of it was taking yourself out of this more modern, say, enlightened perspective, and into the space that is so messed up that he would make this sort of bet. To make a bet for someone to go test his wife’s faithfulness, that he would send someone off to try to seduce his wife for money, is such a horrible thing to do, especially from a modern perspective! Finding a way to shed myself of that modern moral perspective and tap into a very archaic way of thinking about what’s proper in a relationship was certainly a challenge--leaving my Robert sense of morality and going into a more archaic perspective. It did end up, though, being a really enjoyable and rewarding scene to work on with the other actors.

RM: Yes, enjoyable because it was challenging. Chelsea [David] talked a lot about that scene, and about playing Philaria trying to pull you back from that decision Posthumus is making. She is, in this version, the only woman in the scene watching the men falling back into a subcultural male trust, in which they trust other men so fundamentally that it outweighs their other morals. Hence you have them wagering on a woman’s body, turning a woman’s body into a prize--

RHB: It is disgusting.

RM: and it is archaic, but also an essentialist view of the male and the masculine. We talked about how at the end of that scene, those lines in which Posthumus says more or less that if Imogen has indeed been unfaithful, he and Iachimo will now be friends. 

RHB: Yes: “she’s not worth our debate,” he says. It’s horrible. Again, you know, Posthumus being this orphan who has horrible psychological issues when it comes to his relationships with father figures, who has just had this traumatic break with the only father figure he ever knew because of his relationship with Imogen, coming to this place and meeting these more experienced men and fitting into a sort of “bro” culture, which is a very misogynistic one--he is vulnerable to that. He is vulnerable to being deceived and manipulated. And Chelsea’s presence as the only woman in that scene was so valuable, because she gives you something to push against. She was really valuable for both of those scenes, for getting some perspective on the ridiculousness and the stupidity and the disgustingness of what these men are doing.

RM: Absolutely. And the gender change [in casting] there was particularly interesting because as Philaria, she’s not responding just on the level of--shall we say--evidence? She’s responding on the level of...  “think beyond being a dickhead.”

RHB: She’s the adult in the room, certainly, and nobody listens to her.

RM: Certainly. Did your character and your performance change over the course of the two-month-plus run? 

RHB: I do think so, in ways that are likely to be imperceptible to me. I think I just came to understand in ways that I can’t even articulate the rhythm of the story and the rhythm of Posthumus much more so over the run. I think all of us did that, that is the luxury of getting to perform a show so many times consecutively for such a long period of time. I think it’s great to get to dig into a show that way, and just to naturally grow, even if I can’t explain exactly how. 

RM: It was very visible--and I was seeing you perform at the end of the run--just how comfortable you had become with those rhythms and those beats. The performances were so tight and secure that it liberated you to choose when to break that beat, and do a little ad lib non-verbal gesture or glance to the audience or inflection in your voice. That was happening especially in the Missoula performance, which felt especially like a typical final performance. Things became looser, more playful, and especially with the audience it becomes a bit more knowing. 

RHB: We had a lot of enthusiastic crowds! You learn what you can get away with, and what you can’t get away with.

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Robert Hunter Bry as Posthumus

RM: Wrapping up, this is my Anthropocene question, as it were: thinking about your work in this production over all, and the production over all, would you say this production was conveying some kind of environmental consciousness or imagination to its audiences?  

RHB: I hope so! I think that was something that we all felt, and I think that was something that Shakespeare gave us. He gave it to us in many of his shows, and it’s very evident in this one. This is something that Gretchen brought up on day one: I hope we were able to convey in our production things like the difference between the world of the court and the world of nature.

I can talk a little about Rachel [Cendrick]: she plays both the Queen, this corrupting, toxic figure who exists solely in the world of the court, but she also plays Cadwal, this character who is magnetic to the audience, who is larger-than-life, and kind, and valiant, and strong, and wild, and who conveys the world of nature so well. We don’t have a big scene change that conveys that shift from the world of the court to the world of the environment, but I think it came across in the energy the actors brought playing those characters. It’s in the way that a character like Imogen thrives when she learns to adapt in the natural world as opposed to the way that she struggles in the world of the court.

I mean, we didn’t have the luxury of a big set change or anything like that, but we had the luxury of gorgeous backdrops--how can you not fall in love with nature when you’re sitting in some of the places where we performed, with all the mountains and the trees and all the gorgeous views? We had the luxury of the story giving us that change of perspective. That message anchored us a lot as a company, as an ensemble. And in a show like Cymbeline, you need all the anchoring you can get!

RM: Were there particular locations where you felt your performance conveying the value of that natural world?

RHB: Charlo was one, where we were out on this sort of wooded area with these gorgeous willow trees, and the set was built right in the middle and it looked beautiful. It’s something I’ll never forget. Another was on the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park, I think Silvergate was the town we were in. Just being so close to the national park and speaking those words about the beauty of nature and the importance of them--inevitably, sitting right there really evokes that. And Glacier, as well, we had a performance right outside Glacier National Park. That really drives it home so much: what we’re talking about is right in front of us. You can’t escape it, it’s such a gift! It makes our job so easy when we’re right there. 

RM: Well, Robert, it's been absolutely delightful to talk to you, as well as really really illuminating about your role and about the whole experience of the of the production and the performances and the interactions with the environments. I can't thank you enough for taking the time away from your relaxation in Chicago to spend an hour with me. It has lifted my spirits, and also kind of vindicated, in my own mind anyway, what this project was trying to do--this crazy project! Getting people to perform Cymbeline in various places around the world is kind of wild!

RHB: This has absolutely been my pleasure, getting to dig into this and to discuss the work that I’ve been doing while living in a new place for four months. Thank you for reaching out to me as well.

RM: I hope I’ll see you in something else sometime, either in the Chicago theatres or in Montana again: perhaps another tour with Montana Shakespeare in the Parks? 

RHB: I couldn’t ask for better.