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Wacky Willy 

Shakespeare pulls out all the stops in a spotty Cymbeline.

If you're a fan of Shakespeare's plot contrivances and character flourishes, you may have found a treasure trove in one of his later plays, Cymbeline, now being performed by the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival. This rather lumbering work features a nasty stepmother, underhanded trickery, crossdressing, and a beheading. It's hard to ask for more from an evening of free theater.

But, alas, we do. In this case, we ask for more actors who have a clear sense of what they're saying and to whom. Nothing drags down a Shakespeare production faster than performers who are wrestling with the Bard's complex but glorious language and wind up losing two out of three falls. In this cast, there are some who manage to shine, but others who should be kept away from Will's work at the point of a sharp stick.

The storyline is a washed-out version of King Lear, with some surprises that wouldn't have been out of place on Laverne & Shirley. The new queen wants her son, the rather dimwitted and cloddishly named Cloten, to marry Imogen, King Cymbeline's daughter. But Imogen has hooked up with Posthumus, and so the queen, true to The Code of Stepmothers, is intent that she be killed. Meanwhile, the cad Iachimo bets Posthumus that he can bed his wife, and after sneaking into Imogen's bedroom and stealing her bracelet, he claims to have done just that. Now Posthumus wants her dead too, so Imogen sets off dressed like a soldier, to find her hubby and straighten things out.

In a performance that stretches to more than two and a half hours with intermission, Cymbeline has plenty of time to show off its good points, such as some lovely speeches and a nifty double entendre: While Cloten practices singing a love ditty as he strums his guitar, he muses, "If you can penetrate her with your fingering, so, we'll try with tongue too." There are also more than a few bad points, such as unbelievable plot twists and shallow characters (the queen, well played by Kim Wagner, is a dollar-store Lady Macbeth).

Although she overtorques some of the crying scenes, Natalie Knepp keeps Imogen in the game, and one can't help rooting for her. As Cloten, Brian McNally has an electric stage presence that makes his scenes some of the most engaging and amusing. Doug Kusak also does a creditable job of making Posthumus' servant, Pisanio, a stable force for reason in this swirling tale. But Nathan Gurr pushes a nice, understated style into some overly flat line readings as Iachimo. And Andrew Marikis barely registers as Posthumus.

Since all Cleveland Shakespeare Fest shows travel to different outdoor venues, and must be light-footed enough to move indoors easily in case of rain, the sets are minimal to stark. This doesn't seem to affect some plays, but Cymbeline would have benefited from some stage imagery to accompany the melodious words. Still, director Larry Nehring has done well with a challenging script and a somewhat challenged cast.

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