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Complex Classic Meets Robotic Complexity

July 27, 2008

By Alice T. Carter, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 27–Robotics and a rose garden are two seemingly disparate elements that Quantum Theatre will use to bring William Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” to life.

A collaboration between Quantum Theatre and The Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, “Cymbeline” will begin performances Thursday in the Rose Garden of Mellon Park.

Using 21st-century technology and an outdoor setting are not just gimmicks to get attention, says Quantum Theatre’s artistic director Karla Boos.

“It maximizes how to facilitate what I want to experiment with and serves the exploration of the play,” she says.

Don’t come expecting to see R2-D2 or Robbie the Robot substituting for actors.

“This is something far different from a walking, talking android,” says Illah Nourbaksh, an associate professor at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University who has been working with Boos and her design team on the production.

Instead, Boos hints, the production will employ elements of robotic technology in more symbolic ways that may surprise and involve the audience.

“This piece of technology is an enabler of the old concept of more direct communication between audience and performer. … I am so engaged about when we want the audience to affect the play and when we don’t.”

The towering cypress trees and greenery embrace the audience and stage, while infusions of high-tech machinery highlight the contrasts between the play’s machine-like structure and the wildness of its plot, as well as the humanity revealed in the play’s resolution, she says.

“Cymbeline,” Shakespeare’s seldom-done romantic drama is possibly his messiest work. Its title refers to King Cymbeline, a pre-Christian king who ruled Britain between 33 BC and 2 AD.

But most of the plot and the action revolves around Cymbeline’s daughter, Imogen.

Imogen derails her father’s plans to marry her to his second wife’s son from her first marriage, instead marrying Cymbeline’s adopted son, Posthumous.

Banished to Rome for marrying against the king’s wishes, Posthumous falls in with Iachimo who bets Posthumous he can seduce the loyal Imogen.

Treachery, deception, lust, jealousy, betrayal, repentance, redemption and a whole lot more ensue before the drama is resolved with a happy ending of revelations, reunions and reconciliations.

“It’s a deep play, a complex play. It’s very funny. His takes on issues are very often unserious,” says Boos. “It’s important for me to do ‘Cymbeline’ without making a feminist statement and to see the parallels to our own government. This is a ruler who has many inadequacies and makes many mistakes. He does not come through the journey to knowledge a la King Lear.”

Part thriller, part action drama, part romance, it’s stitched together with plot devices familiar from other Shakespeare works — women disguised as men, lovers mistakenly identified as dead and deceptions aided by pieces of jewelry or bloody handkerchiefs.

“It is a deeply experimental play. Shakespeare was using in new ways things he had combined or made conventions of his own work,” Boos says. “He messes with them to a great degree. The cross-dressing journey (in ‘Cymbeline’) is to a different purpose than in ‘As You Like It.’ “

Shakespeare’s play contains some two dozen speaking parts as well as parts for a horde of lords, ladies, Roman senators, soldiers, attendants, officers and musicians, as well as a soothsayer and apparitions.

The Quantum staging will offer a more streamlined and purposeful casting.

Mikelle Johnson, the production’s sole female performer, will play King Cymbeline’s much-wronged daughter, Imogen.

The gender-imbalanced casting is a deliberate attempt to heighten Imogen’s sense of isolation.

The remaining roles, including that of King Cymbeline’s scheming second wife and queen will be played by six male actors — Mark Staley, Rick Kemp, Sam Turich, David Whalen, Patrick Jordan and Joel Ripka.

Using robots to augment the cast was ruled out during early planning sessions, says Nourbaksh.

“We went beyond those things,” he says. “Our interest is to take a familiar technology and hijack it for other purposes.”

Hoping to preserve an element of surprise for the audience, Nourbaksh and Boos both refuse to specify what that familiar technology is or how they would use it in “Cymbeline.”

“It’s not a pick-your-own-ending, but a technological mediation between the actors and the audience,” Nourbaksh says.

“I am so engaged about when we want (the audience) to affect the play and when we don’t,” Boos says. “The play belongs to the actors. It’s about journeys.”

So what would Shakespeare think about inserting new this technology into his plays?

“I’m getting older and looser; I don’t feel so reverential,” says Boos. “I think he would be supportive of my looseness.”

Nourbaksh agrees.

“Isn’t it fair to say that ‘Cymbeline’ is experimental? He (Shakespeare) is experimental. I would think he would embrace it,” he says.

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