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Poor Princesses

The Bard and Redmoon have their way with fairy-tale conventions.

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CYMBELINE CHICAGO SHAKESPEARE THEATER

THE PRINCESS CLUB REDMOON THEATER

Cymbeline

WHEN Through 11/11: Wed 1 and 7:30 PM, Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM

WHERE Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand

PRICE $54-$70

INFO 312-595-5600

The Princess Club

WHEN Through 10/7: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 4 and 7:30 PM, Sun 7:30 PM

WHERE Redmoon Central, 1463 W. Hubbard

PRICE $15-$30

INFO 312-850-8440, ext. 111

Cymbeline is not an easy play. With its hodgepodge of outlandish plot twists and unapologetic parodies of characters from greater Shakespeare plays, it's the campiest of the late romances--though it shares the themes of forgiveness and happy reunions with its finer counterparts Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest. And Imogen, Cymbeline's spirited daughter, is yet another Shakespearean heroine destined to end up with a man wholly unworthy of her. How to make it all work?

For Barbara Gaines, who's staged Cymbeline twice before, the answer appears to be "more is more." Chicago Shakespeare Theater's luxurious space and technical capabilities allow her to paint a bold, silly cartoon that occasionally threatens to cross the line from crowd-pleasing to pandering and sometimes steamrollers the work's rare but welcome moments of melancholy. But then what place does subtlety have in a story that features a larger-than-life deus ex machina, Jupiter complete with thunderbolt descending from the heavens astride an eagle?

Imogen, daughter of the king of Britain, has defied her father by marrying a commoner, Posthumus, instead of her cloddish stepbrother, Cloten. Her banished husband flees to Rome, where he makes an ill-advised wager with Iachimo (the Mini-Me to Iago) that Iachimo can't cuckold him with Imogen. Iachimo travels to Britain, gains access to the sleeping Imogen's bedroom through a Trojan horse device that, truthfully, she should have seen through, and obtains flimsy "proof" of her supposed faithlessness in the form of a bracelet and a glimpse of a mole on her breast. Iachimo's lie causes Posthumus not only to violently curse and reject his wife but to send a letter to his loyal servant in Britain, Pisanio, begging him to kill her.

That's the first third of the play. Then there's the usual Shakespearean round of mistaken identities, cross-dressers, and back-from-the-dead discoveries. Imogen flees the court with Pisanio, disguises herself as a boy, and ends up in a cave with an old man and his two roughneck but loving sons--who happen to be her brothers, kidnapped by the old coot long ago as revenge against Cymbeline. The old "dead or sleeping?" trick used in Romeo and Juliet comes into play thanks to a magic potion. A headless corpse is mistaken for another man, a scheming queen resembles Lady Macbeth, and Britain begins a confounding war with Rome over what appear to be Cymbeline's unpaid finders' fees. A far from concise denouement somehow makes everything clear. It's not exactly an enchanting journey, but to Gaines's credit, it's never boring.

Chaon Cross's winsome Imogen and Joel Hatch's decent Pisanio are the only characters who have anything resembling an inner life, and their quiet moments together help ground this dizzy carnival of contrivances. As Imogen's siblings, Stephen Louis Grush and Derrick Trumbly offer models of manly courage and honor that stand in stark contrast to vile Cloten (overplayed to annoying perfection by Brian Sills) and self-pitying Posthumus (Joe Sikora, who somehow pulls off the character's lightning-fast switch from spousal devotion to murderous rage). Larry Yando's performance as Cymbeline doesn't really take off until the second half; he's at his best reacting bemusedly to the unfolding coincidences and unmasked identities of the play's conclusion.

Cymbeline--which was probably written about six or seven years before Shakespeare's death and two years before The Tempest, his great farewell to the stage--offers a glimpse of an aging writer content to till familiar fields. It's self-parody, but it has enough compassion and sly wit to be a convincing fairy tale: things work out perfectly in the end for the good-hearted. And that allows everyone, including Shakespeare, to avoid Lear-like levels of existential despair.

The notion of the princess has been degraded since Shakespeare's time, as has the label "fairy tale," now applied with a straight face to the mystifying success of every pop tart who basks in her 15 minutes of fame before heading to rehab. Women have more political power than ever, but as Guardian film critic Kira Cochrane noted recently, most movie actresses accept that appearing nude or nearly nude is part of the job. She notes that "for many women, it seems, no matter how successful they are, the need to be pleasing to men, to say 'However powerful and clever I might seem, I'm just a playful bra-baring bunny underneath,' trumps everything."

Redmoon Theater attempts to anatomize the problem in The Princess Club, created by Jim Lasko. Set in a storage room with three packing crates labeled "Sleeping Beauty," "Rapunzel," and "Cinderella," it features fembots--dolls who come to life, the actors grotesquely padded in Joel Klaff's costumes--who reenact the fairy tales. These "princesses" also engage in repetitive interactions that suggest the hive-mind cruelties of teenage girls, excluding or mimicking one another. The problem with the setup is that men are almost entirely absent, leaving us to conclude that women are their own worst enemies when it comes to unhealthy body image, low self-esteem, and self-sabotage. Which might be true, except that Hollywood, advertising, print media, and the music industry are mostly run by men.

Usually I can find something thought provoking in even the least well realized of Redmoon's shows, but this one (which I caught in a final preview) feels as shallow and smug as the pop world it's sending up. There are some lovely moments in the reenactments of the traditional fairy tales, particularly when Rapunzel reunites with her blind prince. And Lauren Sharpe is a standout as the outsider who converts to princessdom. But the bloody tales don't benefit from the amplification they get here--throwing a lot of ketchup around, for example, while Cinderella's sisters amputate parts of their feet to try and fit into the glass slipper. The visuals don't pop--the lighting and design palette are muddy--and the performers' mincing, winking antics grow wearisome. For a bright, outrageous send-up of fairy tale conventions, you'd be better off with the Bard.

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