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It took 27 years for Britain's King Cymbeline and his court to put in an appearance at the Utah Shakespearean Festival. But if audience reaction to the opening performance of "Cymbeline" here Saturday night is any indication, it was worth the wait.

Under the direction of Kent Thompson, the three-hour-long romantic epic introduced a large, enthusiastic audience to a relatively unknown fantasy about a beautiful princess, a manipulated king, a wicked stepmother/queen, an oafish prince, a handsome hero, two lost princes and a battle between independent-minded Britain and the legions of Rome.Admittedly, it's a lot to absorb in one sitting - probably one of the main reasons the play is so rarely produced. But Thompson's cast and crew made it work wonderfully, with a broad, energetic interpretation that sets viewers off on a delightful voyage of discovery of this "new" play by Shakespeare.

It is interesting that USF's first staging of "Cymbeline" should play in repertory this summer with "Othello" and "As You Like It," for it shares key plot devices with both shows. Like "Othello" it has to do with a woman who marries against her father's wishes, and who ends up being unjustly thought unfaithful by her new husband, who in turn plots to have her killed. That's when the "As You Like It" subplot comes into play, as the woman escapes danger by counterfeiting herself as a boy.

In fact, there are familiar Shakespearean threads interwoven throughout the fabric of "Cymbaline" - the reunion of long-lost siblings (as in "Comedy of Errors"), godly intervention ("As You Like It" and various others), the semi-legendary period setting ("King Lear") and even the use of a decapitated head as a prop ("Macbeth").

And there are familiar non-Shakespearean elements as well. Have you heard the one about the wicked queen who is jealous of her beautiful stepdaughter? The girl is supposed to be executed, but the servant who is given the awful assignment can't bring himself to do it, so he turns her lose in the wilderness. There she meets some friendly woodsmen who kindly take her under their collective wing and are deeply sorrowed when a potion for the queen puts her into a sleep so deep they think she's dead.

If Shakespeare had been able to beat Disney to "Heigh ho, heigh ho, it's off to work we go," he might have had a real hit on his hands here.

Of course, theater historians tell us that "Cymbeline" was popular with audiences in Shakespeare's time. Subsequent generations of theatrical producers, however, have pretty much ignored it. Perhaps they were frightened by the play's size, with its multiple characters, storylines, scenes and scene changes. Perhaps they were unable to understand a romantic play that is essentially an elaborate fairy tale for adults. And perhaps, as time passed and the play fell into further disuse, modern producers were afraid of it because they weren't acquainted with it. With so many comfortable riches to choose from in the Shakespearean canon, why take a chance on a play nobody has ever heard of?

Whatever the fears and concerns, festival founder/producing director Fred Adams was able to set them aside long enough to slip "Cymbeline" into the 1988 schedule. And he put it into the right hands, for Thompson and his cast and crew have ventured into this somewhat uncharted territory and returned with a production of wondrous excellence - a fable that is part comedy, part romance and all satisfying entertainment.

Thompson has found a great deal of humor in the material, and he elicits it from his actors with deft line readings and well-timed bits of business. With actor Willis Sparks he has found a memorable comic character in Cloten, the queen's cloddish son who loses his head - literally - over the king's daughter, Imogen. Although it's clear from the lines that the Bard intended Cloten as a fool, Thompson and Sparks have joined forces to make him so funny he even gets laughs when all that's left of him is a bloody head.

Monica Bell, who has an extraordinary summer with superb performances in all three plays, brings just the right mix of fairy tale sweetness and saucy independence to the role of Imogen, the princess who stands at the center of most of the play's action. Martin Robinson is a fine and passionate Posthumus Leonatus, Imogen's husband. Liisa Ivary plays the wicked queen with menacing charm and grace, while Christian Lebano offers a warm and human King Cymbeline, capable of great good and great error.

The rest of the ensemble - headed up by Roger Bechtel, Dennis Rees, Mark Young, LeWan Alexander, Tina Witek and Jim Jorgensen - lent first-rate support. In fact, one of the great strengths of the entire festival this year is an unusual depth of quality performers in each cast.

Similarly, Ron Ranson Jr.'s setting is appropriately mystical and fantastic, while Linda Roethke's costumes are colorfully in keeping with the fairy tale setting. In their hands, "Cymbeline" is a visual feast.

Twenty-seven years in the making.