Cymbeline‘s disparate themes and credulity-stretching plot have always posed serious challenges to any director willing to take it on. That’s one of the reasons it’s not often staged. Case in point: Shakespeare Theatre’s new production of Cymbeline, now playing at the Lansburgh, is the very first time they’ve mounted the play in their long and storied history.
Assigned the daunting task of bringing Cymbeline to life for a 21st century audience, Director Rebecca Bayla Taichman largely succeeds. Her modest re-engineering of the original does make its disparate elements more coherent. The production itself, with its minimalist, somewhat surreal sets designed by Riccardo Hernandez, is mystical, gauzy, and wintry in mood and tone. But, with a few notable exceptions, the acting—specifically in terms of characterization and diction—was not ready for prime time as of Sunday’s press opening.
Cymbeline, with its family grudges and exotic exiles, resembles the Bard’s more familiar Tempest and Winter’s Tale due not only to its surprisingly dark unpleasantries but also for its almost impossibly convoluted story line.
As the lights dim, we soon learn that our heroine, Imogen (Gretchen Hall), has impetuously married her childhood pal without her dad’s permission. Normally, that would be unexceptional. But dad just happens to be the legendary ancient British King Cymbeline (Ted van Griethuysen), while Imogen’s husband—who’s stuck with the rather foreboding name of Posthumus Leonatus (Mark Bedard)—happens to be a commoner. Wrong answer when you’re the royal daughter!
The furious Cymbeline, displaying the patience and common sense of a mad King Lear, sends Posthumus into exile, freeing his new Queen (Franchelle Stewart Dorn)—Imogen’s wicked stepmother—to join her own son, the worthless Cloten (Leo Marks), to Imogen by marriage and then usurp Cymbeline’s kingdom.
In the process of resolving this mess, the evil Iachimo (Adrian LaTourelle) tricks the gullible, exiled Posthumus into thinking his bride has cheated on him; Imogen is poisoned but saved by a motley crew consisting of the loyal Pisanio (William Youmans); the old hunter, Morgan (Michael Rudko), and his two amusing sons, Polydore (Justin Badger) and Cadwal (Alex Morf); the occupying Roman army under Caius Lucius (Andrew Long) is dissed, attacked, defeated, forgiven, and put back in charge by Cymbeline; the King discovers his long lost sons weren’t lost at all; and the god Jupiter shows up to straighten out the loose ends.
Shakespeare provides some of the necessary backstory to his play via an opening dialogue between “Two Gentlemen.” Director Taichman seizes on this dialogue as a way to bring some order to the stage proceedings. She reimagines this opening prologue by recasting the gents as a little girl (Zoe Wynn Briscoe)—who’s being told a bedtime fairy story by a fairy godmother figure (Dee Pelletier)—who, in turn, periodically doubles as Cornelius, an important minor character in the play.
To emphasize the point, the fairy godmother reads the tale from the pages of a gigantic storybook, bringing to mind the structure of the film “The Princess Bride,” whose fantastic story is but a fanciful frame tale being read to a boy by his grandfather. That film was a great success. When the similar gimmick works, so does this production of Cymbeline. Unfortunately, some of the actors turned more than a few scenes into Bullwinkle’s “Fractured Fairy Tales” during Sunday evening’s performance.
A key issue, particularly in the early going, was the delivery of Shakespeare’s dialogue. Although speaking in American-style English, the actors tended to speak so rapidly and indistinctly at the outset that we simply don’t hear many of the plot’s crucial details, leaving us to struggle, unnecessarily, with the rapidly unfolding action at hand.
At least two of the play’s key characterizations were limp and unconvincing. As King Cymbeline, veteran actor Ted van Griethuysen looked the part and certainly blustered convincingly. And yet he never seemed the kind of king his quaking subjects could actually fear, often resembling, resplendent in his flowing, golden robes, a dotty King Midas with ADHD. Perhaps that was the point in this production, but it all seemed so confused.
More problematic was Mark Bedard’s portrayal of Imogen’s love, Posthumus Leonatus which seemed hardly heroic. Shakespeare’s somewhat wimpy dialogue doesn’t help. But Mr. Bedard made matters worse with his weak, often whiny characterization of the play’s romantic lead, an impression not helped by his relatively high-pitched voice. At times, one almost wanted virtuous Imogen to sleep with the bad guys just to spite him.
Complicating matters further, Iachimo’s wager with Posthumus, which takes place in a key early scene when the latter first arrives in the Roman camp, is administered so quickly with dialogue among the soldiers so indistinct, that we miss important details that would otherwise make the play a bit easier to navigate. Hopefully, the actors will slow the pace from “Presto” to “Allegro” as Cymbeline’s six week run progresses.
Also a bit of an issue was director Taichman’s finessing of the play’s most fantastic—and ridiculous—moments: the divine intervention of Jupiter himself to sort out the play’s messy ending with a pronouncement and a thunderbolt. This might have been camped up into a great comic scene. But the director here chose to give this faux-dramatic moment to the interpolated characters of the young girl and her fairy godmother. That worked within the bounds of the frame-tale apparatus, true. But it somehow rendered this climactic scene somewhat silly and almost trite.
Fortunately, even though these key matters proved distracting during Sunday’s presentation, several sterling performances helped put the production back into contention. Franchelle Stewart Dorn’s portrayal of the Queen/evil stepmother was one of them. With her stiff hairdo—a mix between Marge Simpson and Elsa Lanchester’s “Bride of Frankenstein”—and her cold scheming to eliminate, or at least compromise, Imogen with a Snow White-style poisoning scheme, she convincingly sets the plot wheels turning without quite degenerating into a comic-book monster.
William Youmans’ faithful servant Pisanio was the very embodiment of loyalty and virtue, making him a perhaps unintentional yet very convincing foil to the impetuous and headstrong Cymbeline and to the evil Queen as well.
Better still was Leo Marks’ weird, mincing, snitty portrayal of the villainous Clotan, perhaps inspired, at least in part, by Johnny Depp’s pirate king in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” But Marks makes this portrayal all his own, his snarling menace undercut by his laissez-faire manner. It’s a gas, really, and he lights up the stage every time he appears, particularly in his penultimate scene where he arrives quite startlingly, astride an iconic yet environmentally correct 21st century mode of transportation.
Stealing every scene in which they appear were Michael Rudko (Morgan/Belarius), Justin Badger (Polydore/Guiderius), and Cadwal (Arviragus), the three rustic but heroic exiles who are much more than they appear to be even if the two sons don’t know it. Rudko is perfect as the genial old man who’s been much put-upon but has learned from experience, becoming a wise old Prospero in the process but without the magic.
Meanwhile, his two sons are characters modeled, in a way, after Wagner’s Siegfried, rude, rustic young men skilled at hunting and fighting, entirely without fear, yet oddly charming and polite to a fault in spite of being clueless about their true secret origins. Justin Badger’s Polydore is amusingly dashing, something we wish we’d see more of from Mark Bedard’s Posthumus. And Alex Morf’s Cadwal is goofily endearing, smooching nearly everyone in sight whether appropriately or not.
Finally, and happily, Gretchen Hall proves to be a stalwart yet endearing Imogen. Whether playing the innocent ingénue, the wronged woman, or entering in disguise as a Roman page, she retains her dignity, virtue, and spunk throughout, providing a shining orb about which this sometimes unwieldy play can revolve.
Cymbeline is a difficult play to stage and one whose vagaries often challenge the audience to pay attention as the plot devices wander. Taichman has taken the proceedings in the right direction. But her cast needs to pay closer attention to the details, sharpen weak characterizations, and slow…key…expository scenes…down…so the audience can follow the plot.
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running time: 2hrs, 30 mins with 1 intermission