Cymbeline: Theater Review

Cymbeline Theater - P 2012

Cymbeline Theater - P 2012

Perhaps Shakespeare’s most problematic play is ingeniously redeemed by a novel vision that conceives it fundamentally as a comedy 

Shakespeare's late-period, lesser-known romantic tragedy is refreshed with a successful staging in Pasadena.

Although over the years I have had the fortune to hear all of Shakespeare’s plays performed (including the disputed ones), until now I had never witnessed a coherent, let alone credible, Cymbeline. Lurching back and forth from comedy to tragedy to history to pastorale, it is generally classed as one of the late-period “Romances” with such other problem children as A Winter’s Tale or Pericles. Like them, it has in recent years become a popular challenge for adventurous directors (another production comes to the Broad Stage in Santa Monica in December).

Bart DeLorenzo attacks this dramaturgical nightmare with a vigorous interpretation that takes its cue from the risibly unwieldy climactic scene, with its usually ludicrous plethora of revelations and reversals, and works backward, logically locating his inspiration in a dominantly comic mode. When the play is so staged with deliberate hindsight, the tragic elements become foibles rather than flaws, and while there are many variations on (and deviations from) the comedy, the play then makes sense as a vision of encompassing compassion toward human frailties.

Cymbeline can be fairly depicted as Shakespeare making a mash-up of his past plot situations from King Lear, (the prickly father rejecting his worthy daughter), Othello (the scheme to create a jealous rage at counterfeit infidelity), As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet and more. In synopsis, the stories inescapably seem intractably hard to follow: there’s a reprise of a war between the Britons and Rome over tribute to Augustus Caesar, a dastardly wager on a woman’s chastity and a pair of kidnapped princes raised as feral woodsmen, for starters. In this sense, the play might more felicitously be regarded with a modern rather than classical sensibility. The discontinuities in mood, the juxtapositions in tone, the seeming disdain for formal niceties all dovetail more comfortably with an aesthetic temperament more ironic than sincere.

Yet DeLorenzo acknowledges all these difficulties without falling into the trap of distancing the audience from the action, no matter how loony or improbable. Often Shakespeare’s comedies can play as not particularly funny, and here while the language is welcomely dense and witty, the setups tend to be relatively stock (mistaken identity of a beheaded corpse a notable exception). Yet this show gets the laughs pretty much whenever it goes for them, with nifty bits of business (some pilfered from Restoration comedy, and why not?) and well-executed timing. With the general merriment established, the tragic elements become more palatable as counterpoint to a vision more charitable and worldly than despairing and bleak. The audience, rather than getting bummed out by the constant changing of gears, feels that the jolts are plausibly organic.

The proof comes in the jaw-dropping final scene. The cornucopia of confessions and escalating misapprehensions promises to make the stage as littered with corpses as the end of Hamlet. Instead, Jupiter intercedes upon an eagle, here whimsically accomplished with a shadow puppet, speaking unmistakably as the voice of the Bard himself. Joel Swetow as King Cymbeline, having been generally reduced to a bit player in the play named for him, transforms from a vindictive, petty authoritarian into a wise and mature father to all. He reaches for the high note and hits it squarely: “Pardon’s the word to all.” Forgiveness trumps justice, and vengeance has no place. Comity supplants enmity in a crescendo of touching profundity. It suggests that even Shakespeare seeks supplication for his transgressions of such extreme playfulness.

DeLorenzo has mischievously cast each main actor in two roles, one “good” and the other “bad” (save for central figure Imogen, who herself gets to double up by masquerading as a lad). I’m not sure the stunt lends any greater complexity to the already wordy proceedings, but it does confound in ways consistent with the tenor of the production (seeing the evil stepmother of a Queen also playing a falsely accused old retainer with a stage beard is enough of a hoot to keep the levity alive even in the heaviest scenes). He has cast most of the actors young, and they play even more youthfully, which greatly suits their often callow or immature behavior. Everyone handles the verse crisply and comprehensibly. Even the verbose early exposition is delivered with a brisk touch.

Especially impressive are Adam Haas Hunter, who both as the infuriated duped lover Posthumus (a signature role for the legendary David Garrick) and his twit of a rival, the Queen’s son Cloten, alternates between jealous rage and silly poofery with abandon, and Andrew Elvis Miller whose Iachimo is even more cad than villain (as much Russell Brand as Iago) and constrastingly teases out an innate sense of decency as the Roman envoy Caius Lucius.

Venue: A Noise Within, Pasadena (through Nov. 18)

Cast: Helen Sadler, Adam Hass Hunter, Joel Swetow, Francia DiMase, Andrew Elvis Miller, Jarrett Sleeper, Paul David Story, Time Winters

Director: Bart DeLorenzo

Playwright: William Shakespeare

Set Designer: Keith Mitchell

Lighting Designer: Ken Booth

Music and Sound Designer: John Ballinger

Costume Designer: Angela Balogh Calin