Until recently, few people other than academics and diehard
Shakespeare aficionados had ever heard of "Cymbeline."
Even this reviewer, who learned the beautiful poem "Hark!
hark! the lark" at her mother’s knee, never dreamed it came
from this Shakespearean romance.
Then, suddenly this season, not one, but two companies brought "Cymbeline" to New York City - Theater for a New Audience with its production at the Lucille Lortel on Christopher Street in Manhattan, and the London-based Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, making its debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Both are highly original stagings.
Bartlett Sher’s production for New Audience takes place not only in ancient Rome, but also in medieval Japan and the American West. The Globe Theatre’s Mike Alfreds pares "Cymbeline" down to six actors and two musicians performing on a stage that’s empty, but for several percussion instruments played to great effect.
Even at a time when producing Shakespeare using all the traditional conventions seems to induce nothing but yawns, tweaking "Cymbeline" takes an unusual amount of courage. The play is not only largely unknown to contemporary audiences, but also has a plot so convoluted and improbable that Samuel Johnson labeled it "unresisting imbecility."
What Johnson missed, however, was that "Cymbeline" is also funny and impudent, and contains passages with tremendous lyrical beauty - which is exactly what sustains the play throughout the Globes’ three-hour-plus production on stage now through March 17 at the BAM Harvey Theater on Fulton Street.
The historical source of "Cymbeline" is Holinshed’s "Chronicles" (1577), but the theme of the wager is taken from Boccaccio’s "Decameron."
Cymbeline, king of Britain, having lost his two sons, who were abducted by Morgan, wants his daughter, Imogen, to marry the doltish Cloten, son of his second wife. Imogen, however, is already married to Posthumus, a gentleman of the court. In a fit of anger, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus, who flees to Rome. There he meets Iachimo, a cynical man-about-town who believes no woman can be as faithful as Posthumus claims Imogen to be.
Iachimo makes a bet with Posthumus that he will be able to seduce Imogen. When Imogen repulses his advances, he slips into her bedroom at night, steals the bracelet Posthumus has given her, and gets enough details of her bedchamber and her supine body to convince Posthumus of her infidelity. Meanwhile, Cloten licks his wounds and plots his revenge.
"Cymbeline" contains several subplots found elsewhere in Shakespeare’s work. There’s jealousy and a falsely accused woman as in "The Winter’s Tale" and "Othello"; potions that cause a deathlike state that really isn’t death, as in "Romeo and Juliet"; and cross-dressing and mistaken identity, as in too many plays to mention.
Even before the audience is completely settled, Terry McGinity (Cymbeline/Jailer/ Jupiter) explains who’s who and what’s what in the play - providing the kind of roadmap essential in a production where the scenes move back and forth from England to Rome and to Wales - and the actors slip in and out of roles without even the benefit of a change in costume. They all wear similar white pajamas.
McGinity’s introduction and reminders from the actors, as well as superb acting keep the audience from descending into confusion and the production into chaos. In fact, the dual and triple roles add an intellectual and emotional dimension that at once deepens and expands Shakespeare’s original concept.
Watching Mark Rylance switch from the noble but foolish Posthumus to the foolish but noble (if only by birth) Cloten is more than entertaining; it’s also enlightening. Abigail Thaw’s evil, conniving queen is a striking contrast to her generous and loving Cadwal, adopted son of Morgan and secretly Imogen’s brother.
It isn’t until the end of the play when the mysteries are resolved and everyone is present onstage at the same time that confusion begins to creep into the production. This reviewer found herself paying more attention to who was playing whom than what was happening.
Just as Shakespeare seems to have written himself into a hole from which only Jupiter can extricate him, Alfreds seems to have directed himself into a dark corner that only the audience’s goodwill, concentration and continued inclination to play along can brighten.
Alfreds has staged "Cymbeline" for a broad comic effect. For the most part he is successful. The play is funny in unexpected and outlandish ways. Sometimes all it takes is an actor’s hesitation or shrug of the shoulder to produce roars of laughter from the audience. But too often this is at the expense of the romance - which is what the play is about, after all.
It isn’t until the end, however, when Cloten gets his comeuppance that the comedy does not seem to have served the play as well as one might suspect. By making Cloten into a buffoon rather than a true villain, Rylance and his director have made it hard for the audience to accept and understand why his fate is so terrible and so bloody, especially when the truly evil Iachimo fares so much better.
But minor contentions aside, "Cymbeline" is a joyful and exuberant theater experience, if only for the pleasure of watching actors creating characters out of language and movement and a director forging a collaborative bond with his audience.
"Cymbeline" doesn’t come around often enough to miss this one.
"Cymbeline" plays March 14 and 15 at 7:30 pm, March 16 at 2 pm and 7:30 pm, and March 17 at 3 pm. Tickets are $25, $40 and $55. The BAM Harvey Theater is located at 651 Fulton St. For tickets and more information, call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org.