Imagine that you're running a respectable summer Shakespeare festival, one that's been going for some time now, and you look through the past list of seasons and notice that oddly enough, it seems like the same plays get staged again and again. Romeo and Juliet. Hamlet. Macbeth.
Now let's pretend that you're somebody reasonably forward-thinking, like new artistic director Jonathan Moscone of California Shakespeare Festival, and you've already had the idea of injecting some non-Shakespearean works into the mix, like Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, which Cal Shakes will open later this summer. Terrific. Much needed. Everyone's happy. But still, the season seems a little too predictable.
So you're flipping through your big old Norton Anthology of Shakespeare, and your finger lands on... Cymbeline. Egad, you exclaim! This one hardly ever gets performed, relatively speaking. Why don't we dust off this forgotten gem, pore over it for signs of the Bard's genius, and educate our season-ticket holders about the wrongly neglected, lesser-known works of Shakespeare!
Now of course this is a purely fictional account. But surely something along these lines must have happened at Cal Shakes. This season, in addition to the old familiars Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, we get this production of Cymbeline, the odd hybrid romance Shakespeare wrote late in his career, which Cal Shakes has not staged for eleven years.
Cymbeline is a weird play. It's a weird play now, and I'd lay money that it was a weird play back in the very early 17th century, when it was performed at the intimate Blackfriars theater for Shakespeare's first fans. Based loosely on the story of a British chieftain around the time of the birth of Christ, it is really the story of Imogen (Jenny Bacon), the daughter of King Cymbeline (L. Peter Callender). The king, under the influence of his new evil wife, Imogen's stepmother (Chan Casey), is furious that his daughter married her true love instead of her stepbrother, the dim-witted frat boy Cloten (Andy Murray). He banishes Imogen's husband Posthumus (Stephen Barker Turner) from the kingdom.
While in exile, Imogen's husband makes the world's worst bet--that one of his buddies, Iachimo (Jonathan Haugen), can't successfully seduce his wife, because, you know, she's just too faithful. Iachimo isn't successful, but of course he manages to frame Imogen, who then goes on a quest in disguise to meet her husband, who furiously jealous, is now trying to have her killed. Along the way, she meets these rustic country boys, who of course turn out later to be related to her. There's also a war going on, between Cymbeline's Britain and the Roman Empire.
In some ways, this is a kind of "greatest hits" of Shakespeare's other works. There are obvious derivative plot elements of King Lear, of Othello, of Romeo and Juliet, of the great comedies. Nothing is particularly well integrated. And there's always been this problem of tone with Cymbeline. Audiences tend to ask themselves, am I supposed to be laughing or crying? After all, it has lots of comic elements: romances, concealed identities, women-dressing-like-boys, forest intrigues. But it also has plenty to indicate tragedy: lovers believing one another dead, monarchs who are being manipulated by evil forces, devastating misunderstandings, attempted rape, war, and death. There's even some spirituality tossed in--a bizarre, eleventh-hour scene with the god Jupiter, and a musical number. What's an audience supposed to make of it all?
So it winds up getting categorized as one of Shakespeare's "romances." This is a new genre Shakespeare was experimenting with as an older man, using it to play out some of his favorite themes. He tested his audiences with wistful, thoughtful plays like A Winter's Tale, or The Tempest, which tempers its lighter, romantic elements with philosophical angst and dark undertones.
Now boys and girls, The Tempest is a very good play, and Shakespeare is a very good playwright. Cymbeline, on the other hand, has problems. It comes across as uneven, melodramatic, and unconvincing, and it is not a genius work simply because it was written by a genius playwright. That line of thinking doesn't make sense. Unlike many a critic, I'm not going to sit here and make up reasons why we should stumble all over ourselves admiring this as a dramatic work simply because its playwright is admirable.
Don't get me wrong--there are plenty of reasons for staging weak plays by great playwrights. (This can be a pretty interesting endeavor, in fact. Why doesn't someone organize a "Bad Plays, Good Playwrights" festival?) But if you're going to stage Cymbeline, you should have a very clear understanding why. You should be aware of the work's flaws, and know that you must approach this material differently than say, Hamlet.
This, unfortunately, is where the Cal Shakes production errs. Perhaps with good intentions of making new discoveries about oft-maligned material, director Daniel Fish presents Cymbeline in a manner that is woefully straightforward, played for all the world as if it were high literature. There are a host of earnestly realistic performances that can't smooth out tone changes, and a minimalistic white set, with only a simple bar running behind the stage, that leaves the hammy play too bare and unassisted.
Rather than embracing the play's wacky, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic, Fish seems to be working against it, making deadly serious choices about the play's themes. He seems to want to bring out the feminist elements of Imogen's character. Early on, this works fine. Bacon, as Imogen, has to play all of her early scenes inside of a red circular rug onstage, indicating her literal and symbolic imprisonment. Instead of Briton princess tribal wear, Bacon comes on stage in a velvet burgundy 1860s-style hoopskirt, perhaps reinforcing her sense of limitation. Bacon is also the only female actor in the cast; the other female character--the Queen, who manipulates her and participates in the male power plays--is played by a male actor. This, of course, is meant to signify her place in the male hierarchy. All very respectable interpretative direction.
But after intermission, after Imogen is mucking around out in the woods, and the Romans are at war with Cymbeline's army, this circle-motif doesn't work much anymore, and the feminist angle is all but lost. How could it be maintained? We have Roman gods showing up unexpectedly, decapitated heads getting tossed around onstage, and long-lost brothers with their own convoluted back stories crowding in. Let's face it: this is Shakespearean Days of Our Lives. Why work against it?
Bacon, as Imogen, tries gamely, but her more realistic first-act performance doesn't match her broader second-act turn. Horrible things happen to Imogen--and I mean horrible: her father betrays her, her husband misguidedly tries to have her killed, she weeps and moans over headless corpses. Given the scale of these tragedies, Bacon's attempt to make Imogen's grief believable--real tears, real hair-tearing, real collapsing--is ultimately unsuccessful. I'm all for embracing Shakespeare's independent women characters, and ready to accept a lot in the name of building them up. But let's just have some scenery-chewing already, can't we?
Now there are nice, thoughtful touches in this production. Murray gives a surprising vulnerable turn as the cad Cloten, which is appealing--albeit shocking, given his violent end. The all-male ensemble, costumed entirely in black leather waistcoats, is used very well, frequently observing the onstage action. There is one crowd-pleasing, scene-stealing young ensemble member, Max McClure, who not only can sell a comic quip, but also plays piano and sings. When he finishes puberty, let the kid play Hamlet. (Or, you know, Pericles. Whatever.)
And in the play's final gangbusters scene, the cast finally cuts loose. All concealed identities are revealed, all tragic ending is amazingly, even absurdly averted, and Fish finally lets us sense the over-the-top tone that's missing throughout, partially thanks to some ensemble members with a comic ear, like the physician, Luis Oropeza. Audience members sitting around me seemed newly energized, sitting up in their seats, ready to embrace the melodrama, rather than take it all so seriously. This is the kind of stuff people like to watch.
I know, I know, maybe I'm being anti-intellectual, unwilling to embrace the traces of great themes relevant to us today in Cymbeline. Countless academics have written about how this is actually a very postmodern genre-blending play. Fine. But are we so sure that crowd-pleasing melodrama isn't what Shakespeare had in mind for this play? He wasn't a playwright for intellectuals; he wrote for the crowds. Maybe Cymbeline was one for the box office, and that's why it's been so perplexing to critics for years.
Let's be clear. It's great news for the Bay Area theatrical scene that Cal Shakes is looking to shake things up. Bless you, Jonathan Moscone, for wanting the festival to be more than tired old rehashes of familiar works. But go easy on us, please. And let's make this a mantra for Shakespeare festivals everywhere: there's a difference between great literature and great theater.
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