The plot of Cymbeline seems to have been constructed of shreds and patches. It begins with a pair of doomed lovers. Imogen, heir to the throne, has secretly married Posthumus, whom she has loved since childhood. Furious, and egged on by his second wife, a vicious Queen who wanted Imogen to marry her own son, Cloten, King Cymbeline banishes Posthumus. Posthumus flees to Italy, where a corrupt courtier, Iachimo, makes a bet with him against Imogen's chastity. Iachimo then repairs to England, where he tricks Imogen and gathers damaging evidence against her. Meanwhile, war looms as the Romans demand a tax that cranky old Cymbeline refuses to pay.
A shattered Posthumus, believing he's been betrayed by Imogen, now wants her dead, but Pisanio, the servant he employs to kill her, hasn't the heart to do it. Spared the knife, she dresses as a boy and disappears into the forest. There, she meets a kindly old man and his two sons, and she instantly forms a loving bond with the latter. Not surprising -- because these boys are actually her long-lost brothers, stolen from the court at infancy.
So this is what we have here: echoes of Romeo and Juliet (lovers condemned to be separated); a miniature Iago (Iachimo) and an Othello-like overreaction to his lies from Posthumus; an evil, poisoning queen who might remind you of Lady Macbeth and, perhaps, even more of the wicked stepmothers who have peopled folk and fairy tales for centuries. Pisanio refuses to murder Imogen, just as the killer hired by Snow White's stepmother spared that princess. Imogen's flight into the forest is like Rosalind's in As You Like It. And how many mythic young princes have been raised in the wild -- sometimes by shepherds, at other times by wolves or tigers? Here, as elsewhere in Shakespeare, pastoral life is idealized, and the forest represents a kind of Eden, far from the corruptions of court life.
Like Juliet, Imogen swallows a potion that puts her in a deathlike coma. Like Juliet, she awakens beside a body she believes to be her lover's. It's a wonder she doesn't kill herself on the spot -- but that's the difference between tragedy and comedy.
With the exception of Imogen, the characters in Cymbeline lack the depth and richness of their counterparts in other plays. Iachimo is only a little bit wicked. The queen is a cardboard cutout. Cymbeline is irritable and inconsistent, but we're not given any particular insight into why. Posthumus has none of the tarnished grandeur of Othello. He's a complete ninny, in fact, agreeing far too quickly to bet on Imogen's chastity, and accepting Iachimo's assertion that she's fallen in a trice. He also decides to have her killed with remarkable alacrity -- and how many wronged heroes of song and story would hire a mercenary to kill their cheating sweethearts instead of doing it themselves? Naturally, Posthumus repents the moment he receives (false) word that Imogen is dead and bravely blames Pisanio for not having opposed him more forcefully.
Joel Fink's clear-edged, stylized production suits and redeems the characters' lack of depth. The stage is taken up by an imposing set of gray stone stairs that appear to climb to nowhere. Light plays on the scrim behind the stairs, and suggestive patterns suggest varyious locales. Sometimes the entire cast forms a chorus, reciting or chanting, portioning out the speeches, framing the action and making it clear that we're being told a fable.
The production boasts several fine performances. Elizabeth Tanner is a delightful Imogen, by turns strong and vulnerable, sometimes humorous. Her response when she finds out Posthumus wants her dead is touching, and so is her interaction with her two disguised brothers. Timothy W. Hull brings a certain complexity to the role of Iachimo. The scene where he steals into Imogen's bedroom, and we sense that he's genuinely affected by her purity, is particularly well done; its subtleties are underlined by the way director Fink has chosen to intersperse with the action verses from the lovely song that goes, "Hark, hark the lark at heaven's gate sings." Tahni DeLong, as the queen, glides through the play with a dancerly malice that should have tipped off everyone around her to her ill intent.
Will Hare plays two roles: He's a fantastic Cloten, but a rather blubbery and superficial Posthumus, and he seems to have no chemistry at all with Imogen. Even though Posthumus is an idiot as written, I'd like to have seen him given a more committed interpretation. As Cloten, however, Hare sweeps everything before him. He prances, does funny falsetto voices, tosses in phrases from other plays ("the winter of our discontent"; "Is this a dagger that I see before me?"; "To be or not to be...") and sports a spike of hair reminiscent of the coiffure worn by Martin Short's Ed Grimley on Saturday Night Live. He's completely over the top, and periodically I found myself thinking: "Is it okay for him to do that? But he sure is funny, and what the hell else would you do with Cloten?"
Phil Canzano is a strong Belarius, and Robert Oakes is great in the usually forgettable role of Pisanio. His emotions are intense and clearly expressed; he convinces us of Pisanio's anguish; he works empathetically with Tanner's Imogen.
All the actors make interesting use of the set (designed by Joel Fink and Steve Kruse), slithering or jouncing along the steps, pounding up or down them. But every now and then, the steps get in the way. It's hard to look either romantic or menacing when you're kissing a sleeping woman and your head is at the level of hers, your knees a step or two above that and your butt waving in the air. Richard K. Thomas's sound design adds a lot to the production, from the lone flute that introduces "Fear No More" to the martial sounds accompanying the war scenes.
Cymbeline is rarely mounted these days. It was last seen at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in 1975, when founder Jack Crouch directed it, and the CSF completed the entire canon. Crouch died last week at the age of 84, after having seen all four of this summer's offerings. His friends say that one of his favorite lyrics in all of Shakespeare was Cymbeline's "Fear No More":
Fear no more the heat o' th' sun
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Though thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone and ta'en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers come to dust.