Friday, October 5, 2012

Cymbeline at the American Shakespeare Center

Once Upon A Time.....

there lived a King named Cymbeline.   King Cymbeline had three children by his first wife.  Two boys, Guiderius and Belarius were kidnapped as toddlers by the banished general Belarius and were raised by Belarius as his sons.   Cymbeline's  beautiful daughter, Imogen, known for her loyalty and chastity incurs her father's wrath when he she marries the poor nobleman, Posthumus Leonatus, who was brought up by King Cymbeline as a part of the family, yet is considered too poor to marry Imogen.  Posthumus is banished to Rome.   He leaves behind his faithful servant Pisanio to act as a go-between for him and his beloved Imogen.

Following his first wife's death King Cymbeline married a beautiful woman as his second Queen and she wishes her son, Cloten to succeed to the throne.   To that end, she plots to marry Cloten to Imogen, and when that doesn't work orders her physician to prepare a poison to kill the princess.   She also plans to murder the King to hasten the path to the throne for Cloten..  The physician mistrusts the Queen and prepares instead a potion that will make the user merely appear to be dead for a short while.

In Rome, Posthumus quickly finds himself with a posse of drinking buddies.   He bets them that Imogen will always be faithful to him.  The Italian rascal Iachimo takes Posthumus up on the bet.  He travels to the court of Cymbeline where his attempts to seduce Imogen fail.  Unwilling to lose the bet, he conspires to gain access to Imogen's bedchamber without her knowledge.  Gazing upon her as she sleeps he notes a mole upon her breast that will prove his tale of successful seduction and he steals a bracelet from her wrist that was a gift from Posthumus.   Devastated at what he believes is his wife's betrayal, Posthumus writes to Pisanio and demands that Pisanio lure Imogen to Wales and kill her.    Unwilling to kill Imogen, Pisanio persuades her to dress as a boy and travel to Milford Haven where Pisanio is supposed to kill his innocent mistress.

Before the play is through we will have a Roman invasion of Britain, a princess unknowingly reunited with her lost siblings, a decapitated corpse, ghostly apparitions, and a visit from the King of the Gods.   Confused?   As long as you remember that you are watching a sprawling fairy tale designed to please the tastes of the King of England you should do fine. The talented company of actors at the American Shakespeare Center do their best to keep the audience spellbound.   The problem lies with the myriad twists and turns in the plot, the disappearance of the most interesting characters for lengthy periods of time, and an ending that even the best production would have difficulty pulling off without the audience having a few "what the blazes was that about" moments.

If you are familiar with Renaissance History, in 1603 King James VI of Scotland succeeded Queen Elizabeth as King James I of England.   James loved spectacle and in addition to sponsoring the Lord Chamberlain's Men acting company that William Shakespeare belonged to making them the King's men, he loved masques at court with fanciful elements be they the witches that conjure apparitions in MacBeth or the Goddesses that entertain Miranda and Ferdinand in The Tempest.   Cymbeline, dated by historians to near the end of Shakespeare's writing days clearly shows how a playwright is writing to his patrons taste.   The best example is the stage direction in Act 5 "Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle: he throws a thunderbolt."   Jupiter may not throw a thunderbolt on the Blackfriars' stage, but the spectacle of ghosts and gods is preserved.

Helping to set the fairy tale scene are the beautiful costumes designed by Victoria Depew who has chosen to dress the actors in costumes that evoke the 19th century romantic period.   Director Jim Warren tackles the sprawling story with, what seems like a cast of hundreds, expertly helping his company of 13 work their way through the convoluted story.   Yet, Cymbeline still feels, especially in the incredibly long resolution, to need a bit more cutting or a more urgent pace.

Despite its minor flaws, Cymbeline boasts many memorable performances.   The juiciest roles are those of the villains and Tracy Hostmyer, Benjamin Curns and John Harrell clearly relish their wickedness.   Ms Hostmyer portrays a Queen who is written as if she came straight out of the Brothers Grimm.   She has the drive and passion of a woman on a mission to see her son gain the throne.   As Cloten, that son, John Harrell is simply an arrogant ass.  That is a supreme compliment.   Cloten is the blowhard who believes in his own pomposity.   Mr. Harrell is clearly enjoying playing this delightful to watch over-the-top idiot.  

Benjamin Curns finds the right amount of slime as the lascivious Iachimo.  The bedroom scene is one of the most uncomfortable scenes that Shakespeare ever wrote.   Mr. Curns arrogance over the ease of seducing women coupled with the unscrupulous way Iachimo wins the bet sends shudders throughout the audience.  

Alison Glenzer is the loyal Pisanio.  Genuinely caring about both Posthumus and Imogen it is wonderful to watch Ms. Glenzer as she wrestles with her loyalties to her master and her love to her mistress.   As the wronged and wronging Posthumus Grant Davis has a difficult task as he goes from banished lover to a frat boy betting on his wife's chastity to a repentant warrior on a suicide mission.  Mr. Grant manages to regain the audience's favor despite Posthumus' flaws.

Abbi Hawk makes a bold and delightful Imogen.  The amount of peril that Imogen must travel in the play is immense yet Ms. Hawk takes each and every beat of Imogen's journey with her heart upon her sleeve.   Not once do we think of our plucky heroine as a victim of her circumstances, but as a brave lady who finds in adversity the road to happiness.   For while the story winds its way through many paths and obstacles, eventually Imogen and Posthumus do reach a well-earned happily ever after.

William Shakespeare's Cymbeline is being performed in repertory with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, King John and James Goldman's The Lion in Winter through November 25, 2012.  For tickets and other performance information please visit

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