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Not Your Father’s Shakespeare
By James Yeara

Immo + Leo
By Lucas Svensson, inspired by Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, English translation by Kjersti Board, directed by Christer Billstrom
Theater Vastmanland at the New York State Theatre Institute, May 22

Great fun could be had viewing the Swedish import Immo + Leo as the theatrical equivalent of Kill Bill, Volume 3. As with Tarantino’s great film series, there’s a bride, Immo (Pernilla Gost), a much-desired, athletic blonde whose wedding day goes dreadfully wrong. She’s separated from her intended, Leo (Swante Thunberg), and pursued by an unwanted admirer, Cloten (Jakob Fahsledt), and has a set of misadventures against a gang of misadventurers.

A series of scenes and images accompanied by a quirky, peppy soundtrack create a surreal parallel world (call it Sardonica) where actions are hyperbolic; because of this exaggeration, human gestures, speech, and feelings become heightened. They cause smiles of recognition, a lot of physical mayhem, and an appreciation of dry wit.

If you attended Immo + Leo expecting a plodding recitation of a great classic, as if theater were a mathematical formula where the exact movement of performers in rich costume before elaborate sets equals success, Immo + Leo would seem an incomprehensible failure. Immo + Leo didn’t safely tick off the elements of conventional fare. If you expected the usual, Immo + Leo was Kill Bill in a different sense.

Sometimes not knowing the ur-text aids the entertainment value of a high-concept, low-content production of the classics, as was the case with Shakespeare & Company’s indulgent meandering through MacBeth in 2002 or the New York State Theatre Institute’s 2001 version of The Tempest. If you didn’t know the originals, the copies fascinated with glitter, literally.

However, knowing Shakespeare’s Cymbeline helped in the appreciation of Immo + Leo, the latest in NYSTI’s excellent annual visits from European theater companies. As with the superb The Red Balloon in 1999 and 2000’s Tir Na N-Og, this production by the Swedish troupe Teater Vastmanland challenged its audience. Boiling Cymbeline to its essence, presenting the titular king as an Internet creature (plasma screen upstage, laptop computer downstage left floor), focusing on the lovers Imogen (Immo) and Posthumous (Leo), and bringing out the play’s latent class warfare, all make for a lively theatrical evening.

The high-concept, split-stage set (stage right was the whiter-than-white domain of the ruling class; stage left was the worn and wasted verdigris of the working class; and a railroad track ran down center stage, in case anyone still hadn’t picked up the symbolism), the ensemble acting from its 10-actor cast (creating 20-odd characters of equal verve and exactness), and nonlinear storytelling heavy on the physical and light on the narrative, were all elements of a type of theater vastly different from the produce-by-numbers approach usually staged in the area. This 78-minute pastiche on the loves and lives of the upper class is part of an exchange between NYSTI and Sweden, and it will be interesting to read of the Swedish reaction to the excellent, but more traditional, narrative of Born Yesterday when it tours Sweden in 2005.

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