An Honorable Attempt

Promethean Theatre deserves a lot of credit for tackling Cymbeline. Despite moments of humor, insight and beauty, it is, in terms of plot, one of Shakespeare's most difficult plays. It's as if he'd taken bits and pieces of action from half his other works -- Othello's jealousy, the parent-doomed love of Romeo and Juliet, the villainy of Lady Macbeth, the rustic themes of As You Like It -- and thrown them all together, creating an unwieldy hybrid. Cymbeline is neither tragic nor comic. It lacks the redemptive poetry of The Tempest or any of Shakespeare's usual explorations of the human psyche. There are no lofty musings here on historical currents or such universal concepts as love, mercy and justice. The plot lurches all over the place, concluding when one character after another stands up to tie up loose expository ends, at tedious length, before an astonished King Cymbeline.

The jewel in this toad's head is Imogen, who follows in a long line of such enchanting Shakespearean heroines as Beatrice, Viola, Rosalind and Portia. Like them, she's resourceful, passionate, humorous, warmhearted and both vulnerable and brave.

The plot goes something like this: Imogen, the daughter of King Cymbeline, has spurned the advances of Cloten, son of her stepmother, the Queen. She has chosen, instead, to marry Posthumus. Because of this, Posthumus is banished to Italy and Imogen thrown into despair. In the Italian court, Posthumus is goaded by Iachimo (yeah, kind of a "little Iago") into placing a bet on Imogen's chastity. Iachimo repairs to England and fails to seduce Imogen, but manages to sneak into her bedroom and steal the bracelet Posthumus has given her. With this, he convinces Posthumus that Imogen has been unfaithful (think Desdemona's handkerchief). Wild with rage and grief, Posthumus orders his loyal servant Pisanio to kill Imogen but Pisanio doesn't have the heart for it. He leads Imogen to a remote spot in Wales and persuades her to put on men's clothes and escape. There's some foolery with a poison the Queen's had mixed up that's less deadly than she hopes, but you don't need to know about it. Wandering hungry and alone, Imogen stumbles on three men -- a father, Belarius, and two sons. Almost at once, the sons are filled with brotherly love for her. This is less strange than it seems, because they are, in fact, her brothers, Belarius having stolen them from the king when they were babies. Cloten, meanwhile, is raging about, looking for Imogen; he intends to rape her after killing Posthumus and...I'll stop here. Absurd as all this sounds, implausibility isn't the big problem. Shakespeare frequently made majestic music out of circumstances sillier than these. It's just that everything is mixed together so oddly, and the playwright never seems to stay with one development long enough to explore it fully. In several key instances, part of the plotline is derailed because the character who set it in motion has an inexplicable change of heart: Posthumus repents ordering Imogen's death; Iachimo repents his own villainy; Cymbeline, having caused a blood-drenched war by refusing a tax demanded by the Romans, simply decides at the end of the play to pay it after all. Only the Queen and Cloten remain steadfast in their villainy, and they're such fumbling clods that they never earn the fascinated attention we willingly give Iago or Richard III.

There are muddy, uninspiring or downright fatuous passages, such as the tortured rhyming in the Jupiter dream and -- my personal favorite -- Imogen's exclamation when she finds a headless body she thinks is Posthumus's: "O Posthumus, alas/Where is thy head?" But there are also moments when we remember whose hand spawned this text, in particular the beautiful lament sung by Imogen's brothers when they think she is dead: "Fear no more the heat o' th' sun."

Director Melanie Moseley has taken an experimental approach to Cymbeline -- though perhaps not experimental enough, because if ever a play could profit from the application of imagination, this is it. Presumably building on the fact that female characters were played by boys in Elizabethan theater, Moseley has done some extra gender-bending. King Cymbeline is played by Theresa Reid and the Queen by Arthur Gilkison, his face painted white in what looks like an homage to Nicholas Sugar's epicene Emcee in the Theatre Group's recent production of Cabaret. Although both are very good actors, the sex switch detracts rather than adding anything useful. Angela R. Light's turn as Iachimo is less distracting and works better.

The play begins with Light holding a divining rod over a hole as if searching for a theme, and images of sticks and branches dominate the action. This seemed effective, particularly the breaking of twigs during the stylized battle scene. I also liked the Celtic-music accompaniment, the company's flexible use of space and the way the action flowed around the audience. It takes a fair amount of ingenuity to stage Cymbeline with only seven actors, augmented by a melodious disembodied voice (was it director Moseley's?) and some projected images.

The biggest problem is that most of the actors seem uncomfortable with the words they speak. It's commendable to treat Shakespeare realistically, to make him your own instead of just declaiming; it's also crucial, however, to master not only his words, but his rhythms if the audience is to understand what you're saying. Of the seven actors, Gilkison, who plays one of the brothers as well as the Queen, appears the most at home, particularly in the scene where he confronts Cloten. Stuart Sanks, as Posthumus, has also had experience with Shakespeare, though now and then he lapses into rant. Scott Curl is a very funny Cloten, though a generically gruff and stooped Belarius. (In fact, all the Belarius-and-his-sons scenes could do with more directorial attention; they're a bit of a muddle.) Curtis Robbins is sometimes hammy as Pisario. Marci Shaklee has moments of great charm, but she is too young, slight and blurry-tongued to embody the wondrous Imogen.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman