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A Cymbeline That Soars
On the Magic of Great Stagecraft

American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.
Saturday, September 29, 2012, C–6&7 (center stalls)
Directed by Jim Warren

It was the eagle I was keen to see. That and the thunderbolts. Certainly, I had high hopes for the whole production because I love Cymbeline and counted on the American Shakespeare Center to deliver the play the way I always felt it should be played. However, because the ASC uses original practice in its replica Blackfriars Playhouse, I was most looking forward to seeing how they would carry out this stage direction: “Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle: he throws a thunderbolt.”

Considering Shakespeare had no electricity, let alone CGI, this seems such an ambitious direction that even George Lucas with all the technology of Industrial Light & Magic would be hard-pressed to pull it off effectively. Though the ASC, determined to stay true to Shakespeare’s Blackfriars conditions, does not use electricity and computer effects in its productions, the theater has the superstructure—and the company has a history of sufficient ingenuity—to carry out such a device. Alas, another post-Shakespearean invention has proven to be an even more powerful obstacle: liability insurance costs that prohibit using “the heavens” in the Blackfriars ceiling above the stage.

So, René Thornton Jr. as Jupiter in golden robe merely walks on to the upper balcony to the accompaniment of shaking metal sheets as thunder and vocalized wind. No eagle (the company decided to abandon a customized scooter built for the purpose), no thunderbolts thrown. Still, the scene of ghosts haunting Posthumus’ dreams and complaining to Jupiter was effective because of the performances and the book magically appearing on the stage. Shakespeare’s incomparable verse and the actors skilled in speaking it are all the special effects you need. This holds true for the more earthly and natural elements of the play, too.

Director Jim Warren trimmed quite a bit of the text for this Cymbeline, mostly with a paring knife, but some substantial morsels are missing: many of the Second Lord’s lines, much of the Jailer’s comments, and all mention of the young princes’ surrogate mother. This might bother purists, but the result is a fast-paced, rambunctiously performed play that is not only entertaining but also satisfying even to this purist.

Beautifully costumed by Victoria Depew in a blend of Regency-to-1840s wear, the play is set “back then.” Every character is treated respectfully with no winking at the play’s superficial romantic conventions or over-the-top portrayals—except John Harrell as Cloten, whom Shakespeare wrote as a bit over the top. The Queen’s son could be played as psychotically dangerous—after all, he sets out specifically to kill Posthumus in front of Imogen and then rape her. But Shakespeare, through the presence of the Second Lord quipping in response to almost everything Cloten says, points the way to a comic portrayal. Thus Harrell plays him, an overproud clod, a commoner who thinks that his newfound nobility, thanks to his mother marrying the king, gives him license to lord over everybody. Harrell is constantly preening and posing, and Gregory Jon Phelps as the Second Lord does not speak his quips as asides, but openly in Cloten’s hearing (but not in Cloten’s understanding). Even in the two scenes where Shakespeare seems to present Cloten respectfully, in his defiant speeches to the Romans, Harrell gives us little touches of humor, like trying to spit at the feet of the Roman general Lucius and then wiping the spittle off his own chin. Later he shakes hands with Lucius (Phelps again, wearing a classic Roman breastplate and tunic), and writhes in pain from the Roman’s concentrated grip, though Phelps barely registers his harming intent.

Cloten’s demise is a pivotal point in the play’s mood. Directors along with actors playing Cloten have to decide just how charmingly funny they should make a character who ends up as a headless body on the stage. In this production, the fight between Cloten and Guiderius (Ronald Peet) is pure hilarity. Cloten thinks his foe is only a ruffian outlaw, and so killing him in a swordfight is just a matter of natural course, and Harrell uses this fact to undergird his performance. He throws down his gage (not far enough, so he has to kick it across the stage to Peet) and issues his formal challenge. Peet has no weapon, so he fights with Cloten’s glove. Smacks on the chest and face force Harrell’s Cloten to stop with a surprised “Ow!” In one grappling moment, the two exchange weapons, and when Cloten after a moment realizes he’s got a glove in his hand instead of a sword, he runs off with Guiderius in pursuit. Shortly after, Guiderius returns bearing Cloten’s head inside a bloody, diaphanous sack, and when Peet drops the head on the stage, it actually inspires a laugh from the audience. Harrell’s mission accomplished: he’s funny even in death.

With its complex verse structures, this play can bog down under its own verbal weight. But such minute details as that fight, the spittle on chin, and the Lucius death grip elevate this presentation of Cymbeline to the realm of a Spielberg action comedy. Before Iachimo (Benjamin Curns) emerges from the trunk in Imogen’s bedchamber, he pops the lock out, startling the audience. Posthumus carries away Iachimo’s sword after defeating him in battle, and a couple of scenes later when Posthumus joins the princes in the battle of the lane, he hands his second sword to Arviragus (Chris Johnston), who is fighting only with a dagger (Guiderius, of course, already has a sword: Cloten’s). The ghosts in the final act have bloodstains on their white shifts that match the wounds by which their deaths are recounted. In the final act, upon mere mention of Cloten’s name, Peet, off to the side, puffs up with pride and steps forward, even before King Cymbeline (James Keegan) wonders what happened to his stepson; Arviragus and Belarius (Thornton) pull Guiderius back in panic. The combat is exquisite. Curns not only scores as an Iachimo more egotistical than evil but also as the production’s fight director. While the Guiderius-Cloten fight was effectively funny, the Posthumus-Iachimo fight was realistically effective.

These are physically rendered details. Just as important is the actors’ attention to the details in Cymbeline’s complex verse. One especially key example is Grant Davis as Posthumus. The man’s quick belief in Imogen’s infidelity with Iachimo and his response of ordering his servant Pisanio (played straight to the heart by Allison Glenzer), to murder her can seem simplistically extreme. Grant Davis, however, anchors Posthumus’ soliloquy against Imogen on the line “Me of my lawful pleasure she restrained, and prayed me of forbearance.” Despite being married after months of secret courtship, their love has not yet been consummated, a fact fueling his rage that an Italian playboy mounted her in “an hour or less.” In this speech, Posthumus extends his rage to all women, listing different deceits with repetition of the pronoun “hers,” and on each “hers,” Davis points at different women in the audience (the final series of vices he heaped on my wife). But such is Davis’ real passion that nobody in the audience dares snicker; we’re genuinely sympathetic with him.

The play revolves, and evolves, around Imogen, a woman many directors through the 20th century have held up as the epitome of Victorian womanhood: childlike and innocent, chaste and true, spunky in her fealty. Shakespeare, though, wrote an edginess into Imogen’s personality. She is a mature Rosalind and Viola, not in age, but in Shakespeare’s portrayal, and Abbi Hawk provides the necessary depth as she wends her way through Imogen's various shades of personality. Imogen is something of a spoiled princess, but she defies her father to marry out of love rather than position or political expedience. She at first gives in to Iachimo’s accusation of Posthumus, but turns tiger when Iachimo tries to slide into seduction; Hawk resumes a hostess’ grace after he speedily backtracks, but maintains a wariness for the rest of the scene. She endures unfathomable challenges on the slimmest thread of faith that she can somehow win Posthumus back (when she doesn’t even know why he accused her in the first place). She faces everything, from Cloten’s courtship to wandering the Welsh woods as a man, with a wicked wit, too, zinging off many of the play’s best lines. When Pisanio tells her he has “not slept one wink” since receiving Posthumus order to kill her, the distraught Imogen now preferring death shoots back, “Do’t and to bed, then.” Hawk, who otherwise maintains Imogen’s witty disposition, turns this line into a desperate plea.

The fact that we develop a natural affinity for and sympathy with both Posthumus and Imogen is the key for the final scene to work, when all the plot threads miraculously weave together into a single fabric of reconciliation. Many critics and scholars consider this scene just too dopey, but I’ve always appreciated the way Shakespeare orchestrates one reveal after another. It’s thrilling and funny, too.

And that’s the best way to describe this entire production, even without the eagle and thunderbolts.

Eric Minton
October 5, 2012

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