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To our knowledge, nobody has ever done the play with a queered narrative,” says Tracey Erbacher, whose company, Theatre Prometheus is undertaking Cymbeline. One of the later-era, lesser-regarded plays in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, it’s one few theater companies stage.
“There’s a lot going on,” Erbacher says. “It’s one of those plays where you start summarizing the plot, and you realize that you’ve been talking for five minutes. There’s parted lovers, and fathers, and evil queens, and separations, and lost/kidnapped children, and 20 years of trying to find each other — all of Shakespeare’s greatest hits.” It’s also not a simple tragedy, comedy or farce, but has aspects of all three. That’s partly what drew Erbacher to the play. “Life isn’t one thing — comedy, drama or farce. It’s all of them at the same time until you can’t handle it any more. I love that about Cymbeline.”
Theatre Prometheus’s production puts a lesbian love story at the play’s center, as well as casting more women altogether. As in the original Shakespeare, King Cymbeline still forcefully rejects the relationship between courtier Posthumous and his daughter Imogen — only now Posthumous is portrayed as a woman by a woman. “[As a man] he’s a terribly bland…romantic hero,” Erbacher says. “As a woman who is being forced out of her society because she married the princess, suddenly Posthumus is a lot more interesting.”
Among other things, the queer-identified Erbacher says the result is “an interesting world that is actually quite similar to our own,” one in which a majority of people are okay with queer identity and relationships. “It’s these father figures, these symbols of traditional authority, that can’t deal with their increasingly queer society and try to put limits and restrictions on that,” she says. “And in that way it seems quite similar to where we’re living right now.”
Donald Trump’s political ascendancy has only reinforced Theatre Prometheus’s focus to put women and minorities front and center, either via novel, progressive twists on classics or through new plays. As a result of the election, the company plans to get “more activist, and [work] harder to carry out our mission, and [work] harder to share the stories that right now are being really frequently ignored” — such as the lived experiences of immigrants and gays.
“If you can get somebody in a room to see somebody live and love within the context of a story,” says Erbacher, “it makes it so much harder to ‘other’ that group of people.”
Cymbeline opens in previews Thursday, Jan. 12, and runs to Jan. 29, at the Anacostia Arts Center, 1231 Good Hope Rd. SE. Tickets are $20. Call 202-631-6291 or visit theatreprometheus.org.
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