Inspired Self-Parody: CYMBELINE at Baltimore Shakespeare Factory
Cymbeline is one of those Shakespeare plays no one ever sees. It's understandable, because Shakespeare wrote a profusion of great ones. The few that can't be called great - and Cymbeline, frankly, can't - understandably don't get produced much. All the more reason, then, that Baltimore audiences should flock to the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's current revival of Cymbeline, because, folks, I'm here to tell you: second-rate Shakespeare is still pretty wonderful, and the Shakespeare Factory has done a splendid job with what the playwright left them to work with.
And what exactly is it that the playwright (or possibly playwrights, since some scholars detect the collaboration of Jacobean journeymen Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher here) left them? Well, descriptions of the play generally start with a catalog of the ways it repeats elements of other Shakespeare plays, and I think that that approach is a propos, for reasons I'll make clearer in a moment.
Let me give you some examples of the kind of repetition I'm talking about. The hero, Leonatus Posthumus, a first-century Briton (Adam Henrickson), is banished from the court of his father-in-law, the British King Cymbeline (Desmond Kaplan) for having had the temerity to marry Cymbeline's daughter Imogen (Sienna Goering) without her dad's blessing. This makes him a lot like the banished Rosalind in As You Like It. Imogen disappears to the country to pursue Posthumus, but, like Queen Hermione in The Winter's Tale, is believed to be dead. Like both Rosalind and Orlando, she falls in with apparent rustics who turn out to be courtiers in exile. Like Juliet, she takes a potion that knocks her out for awhile, so that other characters believe her dead. Then she revives, and like Rosalind, like Portia, like Viola, like Julia, she dresses up as a man so convincingly that the people in her life, notably including her husband, fail to recognize her. Posthumus, meanwhile, is stirred to murderous designs on his wife because he is tricked into believing she has been unfaithful; the deceit reminds one of a deception in Two Gentlemen of Verona and the deception in Othello, based, as in Othello, on the misprision of a love token. There is a deserved beheading of a character no one will miss, so that there can be a strategically useful partial corpse, as in Measure for Measure. There is a prophetic dream vision, as in Richard III and Julius Caesar. A character is moved around in a large container like Sir John Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor. There are long-lost children reunited with family at the end as in The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night. And so on and so on.
In effect, Shakespeare is giving us, around 1611, late in his career (in perhaps the 34th of the 38 plays generally associated with him), a reprise of his "greatest hits," characterizations and plot twists that had worked so well for him throughout his many years on the London theater scene. And yes, there are probably too many of them, jammed together in a fantastical way that makes the revelation scene at the end (itself a Shakespeare trope), where all the confusions, secrets, and misinformation are cleared up, resemble a crowded off-ramp where cars are queued up waiting to escape a traffic crunch. (Director Tom Delise emphasizes the resemblance by keeping some of his characters literally awaiting their turn at the back of the auditorium.) I suspect it's the longest revelation scene in all of Shakespeare. But - and this is the critical thing - it still works. It's corny, it's cliched, it's laughable (a trait Delise rightly plays up by having everyone gasp theatrically at each of the many revelations), but it's also meticulously constructed to build and build and build.
Shakespeare is an old master of this; you can see it as well in the scene in which the villainous Italian Iachimo (Elijah Moreland) cunningly unwraps, one by one, the bits of deceptive proof he has assembled that Imogen has been false to Posthumus with him.
It's interesting that when first published (in the 1623 First Folio), Cymbeline was misclassified as a tragedy. In actuality, it may be a melodrama at times, but its strongest resemblances are to Shakespeare's romantic comedies, and, like those comedies, it frequently evokes uncomplicated delight. And yet, what the play seems to be, most of all, is what I've just discussed: a retrospective of Shakespeare's career, with a strong note of self-parody. That, I think, is why the play is, for want of a better word, overstuffed. There's a Holinshed-inspired history play in it (the Roman wars in Britain), a tale of cunning intrigue lifted from Boccaccio, and plenty of material that, as everyone recognizes and I've just detailed, basically plagiarizes Shakespeare's earlier works. Shakespeare could have crafted a leaner tale; he certainly knew how to do it. (See Macbeth.) But with a playwright as fecund as Shakespeare, a "greatest hits album" would have to be full to bursting. And so that's what Cymbeline is: a "greatest hits" that refuses to take itself seriously, and invites us to participate in Shakespeare's gentle laugh at himself.
Director Delise wisely keeps the pace blistering throughout most of the show. If the audience is going to have to wade through oceans of melodramatic improbability and euphuistic verse to get to the good stuff in the play, and it will need to do just that, best to keep right on. There are not many pauses in this rendering of the play, and the scene transitions are split-second. I think I detected some significant cuts as well.
The cast gamely rises to the challenges of both the play and its direction here. I especially enjoyed Warren C. Harris' Cloten. Seldom have I seen a braggart and fool portrayed with such appealing conviction. And he gets bonus points for doubling as a somewhat petulant Jupiter accompanied by what I assume was a deliberately half-hearted and tinny-sounding thunder-sheet. He also plays a hilarious dreadfully off-key saxophone. Sienna Goering makes Imogen (pictured above in the referenced male attire) perfectly strong and passionate and constant. Elijah Moreland couldn't quite sell Iachimo's change of heart at the end (I doubt anyone could), but he has no such problem with Iachimo's earlier grinning villainy, the kind that would make you want to slap him but you'd be grinning too much yourself to do it. And a tip of the hat to Melissa Robinson, who brings off the villainous Queen and a spooky Soothsayer with equal aplomb.
Shakespeare Factory always goes in for minimalist settings, heavy doubling, and an informal ethos emphasizing, among other things, musical performances by the cast before the show and during intermissions. That might not work as well to frame some of Shakespeare's heavier plays, but here it seems just fine. The overall effect is a delightfully entertaining evening. My advice, therefore, is the same as Lady Macbeth's: Stand not upon the order of your going, but go. You won't regret it.
Cymbeline, by William Shakespeare, directed by Tom Delise, presented through March 10 by Baltimore Shakespeare Factory at the Great Hall, St. Mary's Outreach Center, 3900 Roland Ave. Tickets $19-$24, at https://www.baltimoreshakespearefactory.org/cymbeline . Mild stage violence, dismemberment.
Photo credit: Will Kirk Photography.