The Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s Winter Festival kicked off this month with Shakespeare’s excellent if obscure romance Cymbeline. There are only 3 performances left (tonight- Saturday Feb 19 at 8pm; and tomorrow- Sunday Feb 20, at 2pm and 7pm) but if you get a chance, this is not a production to be missed.

The bench depth at the ASP is pretty good for a small company, something they prove once again with Cymbeline. The 7 person ensemble ranges from the unreliable but good to the consistently excellent. On the unreliable but good side is Marya Lowry who’s Queen hits certain notes perfectly and strains for others (her particular brand of enunciated acting is much more at home here than in the fall’s Coveted Crown). She is better as Belaria, though both roles teeter instead of landing solidly. De’Lon Grant, on the other hand, falls into this category because of the assuredness he gives a strangely disjointed performance, creating two incredibly distinct characters for Posthumus and Cloten. He is to be commended for his impressive separation of character traits, for his charming and detailed Posthumus and for the strength and energy he brings to the stage. His Cloten however, though entertaining, slips into caricature at points. He has some moments of greatness as the whiny prince, but the silliness-prone Cloten is still overshadowed by the endearing Posthumus.

Neil McGarry, Ken Baltin and Danny Bryck fall somewhere in the middle. McGarry is a wonderfully devious Iachimo, and as a rare cast member not playing many roles he really has a chance to develop him. He’s not particularly funny, or rather he’s funny in a different way than is standard for the role, but his interpretation is refreshing and his character work very thoughtful. Baltin is a flawed but effective Cymbeline and a good Philario but its his single scene as Cornelius that stands out. In fact, Cornelius in general stands out in the production. The character is divided between Baltin, Grant and Bryck, each one wrapping a scarf around their head, to cue the audience in to who they are, then speaking in a different accent than the Cornelius before them- it’s barrels of fun and one of the most consistent laugh-prompters in the show. Bryck’s other roles as Lucius and Guiderus are well defined and engaging, making him the strongest in this group.

But the greatest performances among the high-performing lot come from the always-excellent Brooke Hardman and My Theatre Award Nominee (for The Coveted Crown) Risher Reddick. Hardman proved in last year’s excellent Othello what makes her a truly exceptional actress. It’s not her ability to convey meaning more clearly than any other actor on stage or her beautiful voice or her emotive face, it’s the respect with which she approaches her roles, especially the ingenues. As Imogen she is every bit the feisty, thoughtful fighter as she is the lovestruck princess. Hardman gives life and fire to every character she plays, making her Imogen the most engaging character on the stage. The other standout is my beloved Risher. My favourite actor in The Coveted Crown was given my favourite role in Cymbeline, as if the universe was conspiring to further my love. His Pisanio is heavy on all my buzz words: loyal, frank, earnest, loving. As the beating heart of the lively production, Reddick defines the characters around him through the eyes of the devoted servant, creating palpably complex relationships with simple body language and silent looks. His transformation then into the bear-like Arviragas of this interpretation is startling. He retains that indelible warmth that I’ve never seen the actor shake, but Arviragas is rougher, braver, capable of a kind of harm that Pisanio refuses to consider.

The production as a whole gives the capable ensemble a fun and challenging world to play in. Clad in the counter-expectation white, each cast member has only a multi-purpose scarf to distinguish each of their characters. It’s a visually effective choice that fits well with the general artistic vision of the piece. The negative consequence of the device is the necessity of broader character interpretations to help distinguish them from each other. Cloten’s flamboyant childishness and the over-the-top caveman overtones of the lost sons (Guiderius and Arviragas) might not have to be as broad in a production with more visual indicators.

But it’s that very simplicity that makes so much of the production great. Aside from a small structure in one corner that plays the cave and allows for a little bit of levels, the stage is completely bare- a bunch of carpets in a large room with audience seating on all 4 sides. Props are generally non-existent, replaced by mime and sound effects created by the “off-stage” actors seated against the wall. The artistic tone of the show is never clearer than when an on-stage character opens a(n invisible) letter and an off-stage actor provides the sound by opening a piece of paper out of view. The narration of stage directions, slow motion report of the battle and slide-whistle murder of Cloten are strange, strangely amazing and efficiently drive home the fairy tale elements inherent in Cymbeline‘s story. Though some of the ritualistic moments are a bit much, the artistic approach to Cymbeline is truly sensational. It’s new, it’s thought-provoking, it’s basic and it’s incredibly effective.

Between the strong cast, the engrossing story and the excellent direction, Cymbeline pulls you into its world and makes you forget that it’s a play you’re watching. You grieve with Imogen, fight alongside Posthumus and celebrate when the lost sons are found, and every detail of it seems to play out as if it’s not in an unfurnished white room next to a noisy bar providing its own distracting soundtrack.

If you get a chance, any chance at all, try to make it to Davis Sq. (255 Elm St, Sommerville MA) to see ASP’s Cymbeline, I guarantee it’s something you’ve never seen before.

The Winter Festival continues next week with the premiere of The Hotel Nepenthe (Feb 25- Mar 6) followed by Living in Exile (Mar 9-20).