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Shakespeare's problematic play is a sprawling shaggy dog with some bright spots

Robotic servant Pisanio speaks to the very human Imogen. Photo credit: Harlequin Productions

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I've struggled with how to approach diving into Harlequin Productions' staging of Cymbeline, which it seems is a fairly normal reaction that many have had to the work, since its first production around 400 years ago. One of William Shakespeare's final plays - generally categorized as one of his "late romances," along with Pericles, Prince of TyreThe Winter's Tale; and The Tempest -- is typically thought of as a sort of intriguing mess.

True to its reputation, then, Harlequin and director Scot Whitney's take on Cymbeline is a sprawling shaggy dog of a show, running three hours and frequently coming across like five different plays at once. Though judiciously edited from its original text, it could've used another 30 minutes shaved off and, paradoxically, some scenes made a little less on the nose. Part of the pleasure of witnessing Cymbeline, perhaps, is getting a little lost in the epic, overactive plot, but while there are a handful of scenes that really sing, there are a lot more that feel like filler or digressions.

And how about that plot? In the simplest terms possible: Britain's King Cymbeline (Russ Holm) has a daughter, Imogen (the winsome Helen Roundhill), who is expected to marry the boorish Cloten (Will Lippman) - son of Cymbeline's new wife, the Queen (Jessica Weaver) - but instead marries the low-class Posthumous (Lippman, again, pulling double duty). Meanwhile, Posthumous bets the scoundrel Iachimo (Evan Sullivan) that the latter can't seduce Imogen, and through complications following the wager, Imogen must abandon her old life, striking out anew in the guise of a boy.

There's also a robot servant (Christian Doyle), whose presence functions more as a bit of eye-popping costume design than it does as a thematic element of the show.

Deep breaths, reader, because there is a lot more to the events of Cymbeline than space would warrant me describing. Suffice it to say, there is a hell of a lot going on in this show, but there is precious little that I feel hasn't been said more directly and with greater impact in other works of Shakespeare. Literary critic Harold Bloom put in words what I couldn't, describing Cymbeline as an act of self-parody by The Bard, recycling and exaggerating beats from many of his other plays. Its ending, which painstakingly ties up every loose end, is almost comically tidy.

While the play, as presented by Harlequin, is unwieldy and overlong, there are aspects more than worthy of praise: the actors, to a one, are nimble and committed to this material; in particular, Lippman finds a bloviating stooge in Cloten, Sullivan's Iachimo is grotesquely villainous, and Murren Kennedy and Dennis Rolly have a warm presence as two allies Imogen meets in exile. The set, too, is a wonder to behold, offering elegant transitions from castle to country and tragedy to comedy.

I don't know precisely what needs to be done to shape this problematic play into something more impactful, but my heart says this Cymbeline falls a little short.

Cymbeline, 8 p.m., Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, through Oct. 28, $20-$34, Harlequin Productions, 202 4th Ave. E., Olympia, 360.786.0151,

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