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Of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, the illustrious Dr. Johnson wrote: “To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of events in any system of life, were to waste criticism on unresisting imbecility; on faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.” An 18th century man of letters, Dr. Johnson obviously did not revere the bard as we do today. But as contexts change, so do frameworks for criticism. With its somewhat incongruent blend of the romantic, comic, improbable and the unsavory, Cymbeline may be an unusual tincture, but at this vantage point, it fails to outrage.
Indeed, there is something very interesting in this later Shakespearean work in the very fact of its ever-so-slightly stream-of-consciousness plot. The playwright seems to have freed himself from certain expectations. And considering this tenor, Rebecca Bayla Taichman’s choice to conceptualize it as a fairy tale, consolidating several narrative roles into a storyteller and young listener, makes sense. Whether it fully works is another question.
Choosing when to remind us, along with the little girl listener, that we are watching something, as opposed to existing within it, is a hard balance to strike. Although the appearance of the storyteller and little girl are delivered with lyrical softness, thanks in large part to the quiet intensity of Dee Pelletier’s teller, the pauses at times felt attenuated to the point of awkward. Taichman never quite finds the rhythm and, as such, the device tends to distract. And, it must be said, there was something unseemly about a girl-child being read, however protectively, a story in which there is talk of men mounting women like boars and revenge expressed in terms of rape and murder. The original fairy tales were indeed very violent, but there are some very old and wise reasons why their references to sexuality were allusive.
What Taichman achieves, with the help of the simple yet darkly mystical sets of Riccardo Hernandez, the sound and music of Andre Pluess, and some very effective choreography by Zoe Scofield, is atmosphere. Whether as a fairy tale or within the recesses of Shakespeare’s mind, we are given a distinct mood and place in which to contemplate the tale. And though the tale has many branches, like the huge tree that adorns the set, the basic story begins with the elopement of Imogen, daughter of King Cymbeline, with Posthumus, an orphan raised in the King’s house. Outraged, the King has banished Posthumus and, after despairing at leaving his new wife, Posthumus heads to Rome and joins their army. Enflamed by Posthumus’s faith in his wife, the soldier Iachimo bets that he can seduce her and, after a visit to Imogen, convinces Posthumus that he has done so. When Imogen learns that Posthumus has disowned her, she disguises herself as a boy and goes in search of him. Lost in the wilds, she stumbles into a subplot harking back to a bitter dispute between the King and his former general, Belarius.
Unfortunately, the couple at the core do not convince. Imogen is a firebrand: She defies her father to marry a commoner and then has the chutzpah to don men’s clothing and enter a war zone, unchaparoned, in search of her husband. And yet, although such actions should surely define a role, Gretchen Hall’s Imogen exudes more an energetic helplessness than guts. Tending towards the shrill, Hall’s reluctant Imogen fails to stir us. The only thing truly believable about her is that she would excite the lust of the vaguely sadist soldier Iachimo and the Queen’s son Cloten, who circle her like vultures. Matters are not helped by a incongruently contemporary haircut that brings to mind a young, albeit less calculating, Martha Stewart.
Although Mark Bedard, as Posthumus, offers facility with the Bard’s language and some passionate despair at Imogen’s supposed betrayal, we never sense the intense connection that might ignite his emotion. Indeed, his anger and outrage burns far brighter than his love. With so little sympathy generated by the lovers, much of the pathos of their misunderstanding and Imogen’s struggle to right it is lost.
Stealing the show is a darkly wonderful Adrian Latourelle as the devious soldier Iachimo. There is nothing redeeming about this man’s distasteful efforts to ruin Imogen’s honor, but Latourelle embodies him with such awful charisma and nuance, that he remains positively riveting. Another entertaining and challenging performance comes from Leo Marks as the foppish Cloten. Marks must walk Shakespeare’s most delicate line here for although Cloten is an entitled fool he is also a would-be rapist-murderer. With great skill, Marks draws both comedy and menace from this man, even in the company of a mood-killer of a prop. These strong corners of the ensemble are rounded out by a convincing Ted Van Griethuysen as Cymbeline, Michael Rudko as Belarius, his old enemy, Franchelle Stewart Dorn as a perhaps-too-larger-than-life Queen and a nicely understated but effective William Youmans as Posthumus’s servant Pisanio. Mention must also be made of Tom Story in the role of Cloten’s manservant. Story’s obvious talent begs for greater roles.
Even with its dreamlike incongruities Cymbeline is an often witty entertainment and, in the words of a slightly relenting Dr. Johnson, a play of “pleasing scenes.”