If there are any purists out there who will take offense at First Folio's folk music-filled adaptation of Shakespeare's "Cymbeline" at Oak Brook's Mayslake Peabody Estate, they'll likely be in the minority.
"Shakespeare's Cymbeline: A Folk Tale with Music" is the official title for David Rice's clever and endearing world premiere adaptation, which resets the Bard's tale of a mythical British kingdom to West Virginia in 1863 (the same year that Union state was officially founded during the Civil War). Rice and music director Michael Keefe also contribute lots of foot-stomping bluegrass and folk-styled songs to the show, which implies a dramatic framing device of a bunch of Appalachian mountaineers who have put their creative heads together to add their own flourishes to one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays.
"Shakespeare's Cymbeline: A Folk Tale with Music"★ ★ ★
Location: On the outdoor stage at First Folio Theatre at Mayslake Peabody Estate, 31st St. and Route 83, Oak Brook, (630) 986-8067, firstfolio.org
Showtimes: 8:15 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; through Sunday, July 21
Running time: About 2½ hours with intermission
Parking: Free lot
Rating: Largely for general audiences; some bloody violence.
Note: Picnics welcome; bring blankets amd chairs.
If the effect brings to mind the Coen Brothers' film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" -- which freely reinterpreted Homer's "The Odyssey" as a convict getaway caper set in 1930s Mississippi -- then all the better since First Folio's updating turns out to be plenty of fun, too.
Rice and Keefe can get away with mentions of the Union Army and President Abraham Lincoln in part because Shakespeare's "Cymbeline" (pronounced like "Sim-bel-lean") is not nearly as beloved by the public or esteemed by critics as his better-known plays. "Cymbeline's" overabundant and hodgepodge plotting feels cherry-picked from better Shakespeare plays (for instance, Imogene must disguise herself as a boy like the heroines of "Twelfth Night" and "As You Like It," while a magical false death potion similarly causes plenty of confusion as in "Romeo and Juliet"). The characters in "Cymbeline" also aren't nearly as complex.
But in an Appalachian-imposed guise, "Cymbeline" takes on the sheen of an often outrageous American tall tale involving Princess Imogen (Kate McDermott), whose love marriage to a commoner is scorned by the defiant rebel King Cymbeline (John Milewski) and his wicked second Queen (Lia Mortensen). There are even two long-lost royal children in the mix (Ryan Czerwonko as Cadmus and Tyler Rich as Polydore), both abducted by the wronged Lord Morgan (Ronald Keaton).
So even if the original rushed happy ending of "Cymbeline" is dramatically suspect, First Folio's adaptation makes it all feel perfectly akin to a hokey 19th century melodrama.
First Folio's production abounds with talent, especially in the case of the acting company. Many actors double as fine bluegrass musicians, particularly Andrew Behling on the banjo as the Queen's comically vainglorious son, Cloten, and Skyler Schrempp on the fiddle as the wily servant Pisania (a gender switch from Pisanio in Shakespeare's original).
In the vocal department, James Earl Jones II is resplendent with a powerful baritone voice as both the scheming Iachimo and the Angel Gabriel, who appears in a dream to Imogen's husband, Posthumus (another good singer in Matthew Keffer).
Director Michael Goldberg makes the many twists and turns of "Cymbeline" clear and vivid while utilizing the talents of his ensemble to great effect.
So banish any doubts you might have about the Bard being mixed with bluegrass music. It may not be pure Shakespeare, but the fusion is both fun and fine.