A Rare Miss for the CSC
The downside of reading and seeing lots of Shakespeare is that only rarely does one get to experience a play fresh. Thus, I was especially excited to attend the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s current production of Cymbeline, one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote and among the least frequently performed.
Broadly, Cymbeline is the tale of a legendary king of Britain, who in his old age finds himself fighting several battles simultaneously—both at home, when his previously devoted daughter, Imogen, spurns his preferred suitor to marry a commoner, and abroad, when he stops paying Britain’s enforced tribute to Rome. Analyzed more closely, however, the play becomes surprisingly difficult to characterize. Most anthologies list Cymbeline with other mature Shakespearean works such as The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, dramas of redemption and renewal that many scholars, for lack of a better term, have labeled romances. (The CSC bills its production a “romantic adventure.”) Yet the First Folio, in which Cymbeline was originally published in 1623, lumps the play in with the tragedies.
Certainly Cymbeline contains elements of both genres, but what it really seems to be is a mashing together of Shakespeare’s greatest hits. There is the aging monarch, blind to his daughter’s true worth, as in King Lear. There is an Italian soldier who convinces a newly married husband that his faithful wife is an adulteress, as in Othello. Noblemen banished to the wilderness realize the virtues of simple living, shades of As You Like It. A plot twist in which the sleeping heroine is mistaken for dead recalls Romeo and Juliet. On top of these parallels, Shakespeare layers devices borrowed from fairy tales (a wicked stepmother) and the ancients (a literal deus ex machina, though this sequence is cut from the CSC production).
The crucial question for any director of Cymbeline, then, is how to tie so many disparate strands into a coherent whole. Unfortunately for the CSC, director Ian Gallanar seems to have begun with the assumption that Cymbeline is a very serious piece of theatre. My own impression, after spending nearly three hours watching Gallanar’s solemn cast struggle to invest the illogical plot with logic and their foolish characters with gravitas, is that Cymbeline is one of the silliest plays Shakespeare ever wrote—the final scene alone must contain a dozen reverses and improbable revelations.
Although several cast members seem to recognize the absurdity of the situation (notably Jill Giles and James Jager), for the most part the actors strip their performances of irony, and the result is the production walks an increasingly unsteady line between melodrama and farce. Perhaps the fault lies ultimately with Shakespeare, who mixed the ingredients together in the first place … yet it’s difficult for me to accept that such an accomplished writer would have intended his audience to take these characters as anything more than cartoons, parodies of greatness rather than the thing itself.
Another factor that undermines the production is Gallanar’s decision to double-cast each role; the actors don’t know which part they’re going to play until immediately before each performance. (The program and press materials imply the audience will play a role in casting each show, but at the performance I attended—Friday, February 25—the actors’ fates hinged on the flip of a coin.) Perhaps the burden of learning and rehearsing two roles had nothing to do with the number of flubbed lines and hesitant beats I observed—uncharacteristic of a Chesapeake Shakespeare production—but I suspect otherwise. Gallanar writes that his goal was to “create a wide variety of possibilities for actors speaking the words to each other … Will it change the dynamic between the play, the actors and the audience?” I wonder if this experiment might prove more successful with a less demanding play than Cymbeline, which for most people is already unfamiliar enough when performed “straight.”
The other reality of such double-casting is that I cannot critique the performances without acknowledging that at the show you attend, my comments may be totally irrelevant. That said, I would be remiss not to praise the work of several actors. Ty Hallmark made an enchanting Imogen, alternately wretched and formidable as her fortune ebbed and flowed. As the wicked queen who plots against Imogen, Lesley Malin was enjoyably devious without slipping into caricature, and the aforementioned Jager earned most of the laughs as her boorish son, Cloten (rhymes with “rotten”).
As Posthumus, Imogen’s callow but ultimately noble husband, Julian Elijah Martinez found some electric moments, especially when paired with Vince Eisenson’s smooth Iachimo, the villain who slanders Imogen with faithlessness. Martinez and Eisenson commanded the stage for much of the first hour, only to disappear for what seemed an eternity as Shakespeare shifts his focus to other subplots; when they finally re-entered, both men seemed flat, unable to locate their former energy. Theo Hadjimichael made a touching Pisanio, Posthumus’s goodhearted servant, though his at-times plodding delivery slackened some of the role’s humor.
Cymbeline is the second production I have seen at Oliver’s Carriage House, the winter home of the CSC (I also saw last season’s Lysistrata); neither occasion seemed a good match between venue and play. The playing space is long, narrow, and surrounded on three sides by chairs, hardly an ideal setting for a fight scene—sitting so close to actors swinging swords and staffs, one cannot help but feel nervous. I have seen much more convincing battles staged on the spacious grounds of the Patapsco Female Institute, where the CSC performs the bulk of its season.
Even more distracting was a sound design so inappropriate to the action onstage—some of the most climactic moments were underscored by languid chamber music—I wondered if someone had brought the wrong CD. By show’s end, my confusion had turned to regret to see this usually reliable company stumble on this strangely intriguing play.
Cymbeline is playing at Oliver’s Carriage House, located at 5410 Leaf Treader Way in Columbia, on Thursdays and Fridays at 8 P.M. and Saturdays at 3 P.M. and 8 P.M., through March 19. Tickets are $15-$30. For more information, go to www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com or call 866-811-4111. Groups of 10 or more should call 410-313-8874.