Cymbeline is a rarely performed play by William Shakespeare. Washington’s own Shakespeare Theatre Company had never previously mounted it before its current production. Now there are two productions in the area, and, in many ways, the little Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has found a way to tackle the difficult play in a more honest rendition.
Artistic Director Ian Gallanar describes an almost philosophic quest, driven by questions about what a theater space requires to be theatre and what practices of theatre-making are necessary and viable. Inspired by an encounter last year with British director Tim Carroll and his sojourns to London to participate in the reconstructed Globe Theatre’s seminars, Gallanar wanted to create “different atmospheres and challenges” for the actors to make performing Shakespeare a fresh experience. For Cymbeline, Gallagher double cast all the roles.
The evening began with the company called onto the stage and the audience brought into a coin toss to decide who will play which part. This clued the audience to the idea that this would be a “play” in two senses of the word: a story to be told and also a game to be followed. This greatly aided the audience in accepting Cymbeline’s plot and what seemed to be so many strands of borrowed story material, at times almost randomly thrown together. But a play as a game doesn’t have to be integrated. A game is an experiment and ultimately anything can be thrown in the mix.
In attending the two Cymbelines in close succession, I too began asking questions. Why do some produce the plays they do? Why do people go to theatre to see them? In the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production, director Rebecca Bayla Taichman has undoubtedly inspired audience members thirsty for highly visual “exquisite pictures.” Taichman’s concept included a set of ghostly painted trees in a barren winter landscape, a serpentine metallic shelf that later exposed a series of interlocking fish tanks that were elegantly and ritualistically filled, each with a single calla lily. Costumes were in some cases magically flowing and ethereal; for other characters, costume designer Miranda Hoffman created nightmare fairy tale visions. Fran Dorn as the wicked step-mother queen had such robustly propped up breasts and shoulders and ornate architecturally constructed updo of hair that she dwarfed the “shrunken” king who, played by Ted van Griethuysen, seemed incapable of standing up for his daughter or for his kingdom.
Gallanar and his cast had none of this. A makeshift space, no lights, and such generic “community theatre” costumes, one could almost wince at certain bad Renaissance Fair elements. But for Gallanar, this was immaterial or of economic necessity. Rather, he focused on creating intimate relationships between performers and audience, so intimate that when one of the thrones came unglued, audience members could both see and feel nervously for the actress who continued to perch gingerly on it. But because things were so up close and personal, there were also moments of visceral reality and insight. When the son of the queen, pouty louty Cloten complained about his ill treatment by king’s daughter Imogen (who has secretly married someone else rather than choose him), he peevishly kicked over and over the same bench nearly into the audience each time, while his servants patiently picked it up again, trying to diminish the damage and keep things under control. The evening I saw the show, the role of Cymbeline was played by Greg Burgess, who chose to play him as a capricious yet powerful leader, whose rages splattered all over the space. Burgess was an angry but a very human king-figure. He also showed effectively his character’s silly blind affection for his queen.
Unlike the royal family as presented at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, where none of them seemed to be related, the “blended” family at CSC (Burgess as king, Lesley Malin his Queen, Ty Hallmark his daughter Imogen, and Grant Lloyd as the queen’s son Cloten) was really a family. One understood the pain of the daughter who had been neglected and ill-used by her father and the steaming frustration of the only son whose Oedipal relationship with mom had been replaced by her doting on her new husband and king.
This is not to say that the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company was an unqualified success. The acting in the show was at all levels and, in a few unfortunate cases, downright “hammy”. Even in the small space, not everyone had the vocal chops to be distinctly heard or be able to phrase the music in Shakespeare’s lines. There was even some stumbling over the words, and that may have had something to do with the challenge that Gallanar had gambled with in double casting. No one in the Chesapeake production quite had the magnificent stature of someone like Gretchen Hall who, as Imogen, could deliver and hold a large audience at the Sidney Harman Hall. Her speeches both in Acts II and IV with their rapid fire delivery and changes of process represented tour de force acting.
However, the night I saw the Chesapeake production, there were two actors whose work I found particularly effective in their interpretations of two very tricky roles. In both cases, the actors could have offered their counterparts at the downtown venue a richer solution than devised there. Julian Elijah Martinez, playing Posthumous, made believable the lightning fast emotional swings of a man who is told his wife has lost her virtue because of his own stupid and wild gamble. He had both the romantic stature and the quicksilver emotional youthfulness that worked to give Posthumous credibility.
The other great find in this production was Vince Eisenson as Iachimo. Here is a character who is first introduced as a comrade, but who immediately becomes obsessed with a gamble to undo someone else’s wife, and, later, when the woman (Imogen) rejects him, he turns around and praises her, only to return to her husband, continue his lie to undo him. In the last scene, he becomes repentant and, as easily as he was moved to his pernicious deeds, he renounces them. Eisenson made his character a fascinating one to follow. His Iacchmo is a gamer, purely and simply. Never purely evil, this Iacchimo was someone who lives in his head to play out scenarios. He reminded me of the amoral but brilliant modern Sherlock Holmes in the 21st century update on PBS. Moreover, Eisenson spoke the bard’s language with intelligent, fresh phrasing.
When a company has the size of budget and status that draws talent who want to make a big splash, there can be the tendency to create signature pieces under the umbrella of huge directorial concepts. I have found that concepts can work in a first and sometimes even a second act of Shakespeare, but such productions almost always comes crashing down in the fourth act. Nonetheless, the temptation to hammer out a directorial concept on stage seems to be the game for the big players in the field. The once wunderkind Peter Sellers faced something of the same problem years ago with the equally complicated play, Pericles.
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Cymbeline seems to have fallen into this category. The production only truly came alive in the woods scenes with the marvelously coalesced relationships established by Morgan (Michael Rudko), the father figure to the king’s abducted sons, Polydore (Justin Badger) and Cadwall (Alex Morf). These three characters lived in their bodies and in the rhythms of their wild yet innocent world. But in Act IV, when Shakespeare really begins to open up the themes of love and the necessary wounding to bring maturity and redemption, Cloten arrives (with the actor’s bizarre vocal and physical choices) on a vespa no less (though nothing else in the production’s style had prepared for this) and destroys the delicate balance of the play. By this point in the production, his character has become such a buffoon that when Cloten gets beheaded and his body is hauled on stage, the audience laughs at the clown show. Sadly, the Chesapeake’s players rushed a couple of key scenes in this act to the point that the language and themes got buried.
The real problem, of course, is the piece itself. Cymbeline was written as one of Shakespeare’s last plays and lies in the group of romances that includes The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. It was devised for the courtly theatre tastes of post-Elizabethan England. Part fairy tale, part cathartic ritual, part early British-Roman history, the plot is crazily convoluted at best.
Taichman at the Shakespeare Theatre Company went for a kind of controlled, dreamlike ritual but then bailed out. The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company did a yeoman’s job of just laying down the story, all warts exposed. There were moments, warts notwithstanding, the story came to life.
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Ian Gallanar
Produced by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission
Mike Giuliano . HowardCountyTimes