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Shakespeare Establishes the Genre Farce

Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, St. Mary's Community Center, Baltimore, Maryland
Saturday, March 9, 2019, second pew of old church
Directed by Tom Delise

With each reading of William Shakespeare's late-career romance Cymbeline, I become more convinced he wrote a farce. This may just be me getting older. I've got no Shakespearean scholarship supporting my contention, and most productions I've seen play Cymbeline earnestly: funny at times, dramatic to the core, romantic at the end (though Fiasco's landmark production at least approached Cymbeline with chaotic glee). Still, when I read the play and stage it in my mind, I simply can't see how Shakespeare took any of this seriously. He was eyeing the end of his writing career (probably only The Tempest of his solo compositions comes after Cymbeline). Maybe his intent was to do the complete works of William Shakespeare abridged, which would make Cymbeline the springhead of the genre farce. What Airplane! is to disaster movies, what Naked Gun is to cop shows, what Scary Movie is to scary movies, Cymbeline is to Shakespeare plays.

Count the Shakespearean tropes he crams into this one play:

  • a young woman disguised as a boy (which he hadn't done in almost 10 years);
  • a daughter defying her father in marrying the man she wants;
  • a dad feeling the serpent's tooth of a thankless child;
  • a servant defying his own master in the cause of true loyalty to that master;
  • a soothsayer;
  • a leading man tricked into believing his betrothed is sleeping around;
  • a leading man railing that women are deceivers ever;
  • a leading woman complaining that men are deceived ever;
  • two unnamed lords with major roles;
  • banished and self-banished royalty turned foresters;
  • a villain whose name ends with the letter "o" (Iachimo means "little Iago");
  • morning minstrels;
  • ghosts;
  • a god appearing in a dream;
  • a severed head carried on stage;
  • a historic British king;
  • historic England as a setting with mention of France;
  • ancient Rome as a setting;
  • Renaissance Italy as a setting;
  • a bit of Holinshed;
  • a bit of Plutarch;
  • a bit of Boccaccio;
  • and good old sceptered isle nationalist pride.

The only thing missing are twins—but Cymbeline has not two but three disguised siblings. Cymbeline even has a Will Kemp-like character (e.g., Launce, Bottom, Dogberry) who Shakespeare with apparent glee kills off right at the height of his schtick. That's just so Scream. Shakespeare fits all this into one play with a main plot and three subplots, all arriving at one of drama's most audacious endings. Shakespeare also used the device of sharing with the audience the gotcha joke before he springs it on his characters, something he did in a dozen plays, but with Cymbeline he reaches final-act virtuosity unmatched in its complexity.

Production photo by Will Kirk Photography of Iachimo sitting up in trunk with big grin

Production photo Will Kirk Photography of Belarius between Arviragus and Guiderius, kneeling and holding hands behind the two bodies on the stage
Top: Iachimo (Elijah Moreland) emerges from the trunk in Imogen's bedchamber in Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's production of William Shakespeare's Cymbeline. Iachimo is spotlighted by natural sunlight coming through a church window. Above: Belarius (Joe Lewis, kneeling center), leads the princes, Guiderius (Michael Makar, left) and Arviragus (Marnie Kanarek) in a funeral oration for the presumed dead Imogen (Sienna Goering, front) and the headless Cloten (not really Warren C. Harris). Photos by Will Kirk Photography, Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.

Some of the lines could have come out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Pisanio, ordered by his master Posthumus to kill Posthumus's wife Imogen, tells Imogen, "Since I received command to do this business I have not slept one wink." She replies, "Do't, and to bed then." That's not funny? Or Imogen, waking from a death-like sleeping potion next to the headless corpse of Cloten, says, "A headless man! The garments of Posthumus! I know the shape of's leg: this is his hand; his foot Mercurial; his martial thigh; The brawns of Hercules: but his Jovial face, murder in heaven?—How!—'Tis gone." Aside from the body she's describing not actually being her husband, foot is a pun for penis, and this one is "Mercurial." That's not funny? Upon their reunion in the final scene, King Cymbeline tells daughter Imogen of her stepmother's passing. "I am sorry for't, my lord," she says. "O, she was naught," he replies. That is funny.

Given the disdain I hear and read about the play, the serious approaches I see, and the fact Cymbeline is positioned among the tragedies in the First Folio, maybe my take on it is only wishful thinking.

Well, wish fulfilled. The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory has produced a Cymbeline wrapped in a Monty Pythonesque sense of humor I've long divined in the text. With Artistic Director Tom Delise at the helm, this production amps the play's humor, and it works just as I've always thought it would. Even with a cast comprising many inexperienced Shakespeareans, this Cymbeline in the newly remodeled St. Mary's Community Center is another milestone in this company's rise in quality, stature, and notice. The largest crowd I've seen in six years of attending plays here—the majority unfamiliar with Cymbeline—was as rapt as any I've seen anywhere.

Playing up the comedy in a Shakespeare play often serves as a safe haven for inexperienced actors, especially with a play so dramatically, thematically, and emotionally complex (or overwrought, depending on your point of view) as Cymbeline. Delise, though, always approaches Shakespeare with text-centric fealty, and he does so for Cymbeline. Most of these actors may be new to this company and a couple new to Shakespeare; yet, even this cast exemplifies how the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory has become one of the region's standard bearers for speaking Shakespeare's verse, even if a couple of actors in this cast don't quite marry the lines to the characters' personalities. One such performance is Thomas Brown's as the titular King Cymbeline, but he deserves his due, nonetheless, because he took over the role after the run's first weekend. That he's off-book is alone an achievement, but he also becomes the centerpiece of the final scene, bandying the humor of one reveal after another with aplomb. Brown is the evening's big star for another more significant reason: Over the past year, he has rebuilt the Factory's stage, with gorgeous inlaid artwork in the roof of the tiring house. The remodeling is continuing, but the transition from church nave to bona fide theater, in feel and acoustics, is nearly complete.

Baltimore Shakespeare Factory adheres to the principles of original production practices: cross-gender casting, doubling roles (sextupling in this play), universal lighting, and no electronic or digital effects. Costumes, though, are elaborate. Designer Kendra Shapanus outfits the cast in traditional medieval fairy tale fare. Another key principle is direct-address interaction with the audience, the actors even moving down from the deep thrust stage into the seats. Cymbeline opens with two gentlemen gossiping about the court intrigue, and these two Gentlemen enter through the center aisle. They speak in the pit between stage and audience as the subjects of their gossip line up on stage, acknowledging their roles in the backstory. "If this be worth your hearing, mark it," First Gentleman (Marnie Kanarek) says to us, the audience, rather than to her fellow. We not only mark the action we are part of the action. Iachimo (Elijah Moreland) flirts with women in the audience. Imogen (Sienna Goering) searches among the audience for her lost bracelet, given to her by husband Posthumus (Adam Henrickson) but pilfered by Iachimo.

Direct-address fits right into the performance mode of Marcy Xexelia, a stand-up comedian who plays Doctor Cornelius, Second Lord, the Frenchman in Rome, the Jailor, and a Tribune. Her Second Lord riffs on the buffoonery that is Cloten (Warren C. Harris) like Jon Stewart commenting on a Trump campaign speech. As the Doctor, she gets a moment's soliloquy after giving the Queen (Melissa B. Robinson) poison that she's requested of him. "I do not like her…" the Doctor says, and laughter interrupts her. Xexelia glances in the direction of the laughter with a "yeah, right?" expression, which, in turn, spreads the laughter around the room. The final scene starts with the Doctor reporting on the Queen's death and confession of her misdeeds and hatred for Cymbeline. Xexelia delivers this report in a studious tone with solemn pacing, allowing its content to blossom in its own ridiculousness. Then begins the sequence of reveals: Iachimo's confession, Posthumus revealing himself to accost Iachimo, Imogen without revealing herself rushing to Posthumus necessitating Pisanio (Kaitlyn Fowler) to reveal Imogen who then berates Pisanio for giving her poison, which Pisanio claims was "precious" medicine given him by the Queen, which incites an "O gods!" It's the Doctor, who steps forward, drawing all attention back on her. "I left out one thing," Xexelia says, earning the night's biggest laugh, in part due to her timing and in part because the audience has become so entranced watching the plot's dominoes fall in perfect sequence (and we're only halfway through the reveals).

Watching a play like this with a virgin audience makes it even more fun, especially during the bedchamber scene. As Imogen goes to sleep, a trunk near her bed suddenly opens (gasp!) and Moreland's Iachimo pops out like a leering jack-in-the-box (OMG laughter!). Moreland portrays Iachimo as a smooth player, but his reputation seems to be greater among men than his reality is among women. He shows a dangerous side when, upon first meeting Imogen, he tries to seduce her and she, seeing through it, shouts for Pisanio; Iachimo puts his fingers on her lips. "Let me my service tender on your lips," he says in a tone between seduction and threat, but she angrily pulls away. In the pivotal bedchamber scene, Iachimo does not actually assault Imogen (some productions have him fondle her), but Moreland reveals him to be a voyeur. (Pivotal? Cymbeline has more pivots than Giannis Antetokounmpo in any Milwaukee Bucks game.)

The other ladies' man wannabe is Cloten, son of the Queen and Imogen's stepbrother. With Cymbeline's blessing, the Queen is trying to get prince and princess married, though Imogen already is married to Posthumus, which got him banished by the king. Harris, making his Shakespearean debut, struts his way to a memorable performance of a lout full of himself (a real momma's boy) trying to adjust to royal life but held back by his own ego-driven naivete. Even after Cloten's off-stage death, the character's comic performance continues as a severed head inside a bloody sack that Guiderius (Michael Makar) swings about while describing the wrong royal prince's demise at the right royal prince's hands. Harris also plays Jupiter in Posthumus's dream. I've read one scholar who suggests that the King's Men's leading actor, Richard Burbage, may have doubled as Posthumus and Cloten—Shakespeare really messing with his audience (Cloten pointedly wears Posthumus' clothes when he's killed). However, doubling Cloten with haughty Jupiter, something of an egotistical braggart himself, comes off as a more natural choice.

Production photo by Will Kirk Photography of members of the cast peforming a song, with guitar, saxaphone, a box for a drum, and Iachimo dancing in front.

Photo by Will Kirk Photography of the tiring house balcony with a ceiling of painted images under a tiled roof.
Top: The cast of Cymbeline performs pop music selections before the play in Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's remodeled theater in St. Mary's Community Center. Above, details in the roof of the stage built by Thomas Brown, who became a late replacement for the role of Cymbeline. Photos by Will Kirk Photography, Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.

Meanwhile, Cloten's headless body lying on the stage passes the comedy baton to Roman General Caius Lucius (Henry Kramer). Kramer, who plays four roles in this production, deepens his voice and moves as stiffly as a Model 101 Cyberdine Terminator in portraying Lucius with macho virility. It seems overkill in his first scene as the Roman emperor's ambassador to Britain, but upon walking in on Imogen (disguised as Fidele) grieving over what she thinks is Posthumus's body, Kramer's portrayal yields comic gold with his ultravirile delivery of "Soft, ho! What trunk is here without his top?" Kramer's intentional 2D performance continues paying dividends throughout the chaotic finale as the ever-honorable Roman keeps getting sideswiped by Shakespeare's plot.

Though this production leans into the world of farce, it makes keen contributions to our further understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare's more subtle work within Cymbeline. Kramer plays Philario, Posthumus' host in Rome, as fully aware of Iachimo's nature. He even physically tries to pull Posthumus back from the precipice of wagering with Iachimo on Imogen's chastity. Xexelia's Frenchman, meanwhile, is watching it all in pure delight. The Frenchman already has reported forestalling Posthumus from engaging in a duel in France on a similar argument about whose country has the hotter and purer women; now Xexelia's Frenchman can only laugh at this blockhead Briton about to be undone by Italian wiles.

Joe Lewis plays Belarius, who kidnapped Cymbeline's infant sons and raised them in the Welsh woods. When he hears those two grown boys on the sudden claim they love the newly arrived Fidele more than their father, Lewis shows genuine hurt in Belarius replying with "What! How! How!" In the subsequent aside, Lewis goes to the true depth of that hurt: he doesn't know why this strange youth has such a hold on the boys, but he does know that, not being royal himself, he will never be worthy of being their true father.

Cymbeline, though, is Imogen's story, that of a woman conveying the merits of true love, devout faith, and unyielding fortitude. Goering locks down the emotional core around which this production is built, ensuring we're getting a play and not just a sequence of gags. Her Imogen is both a girlish romantic and a royal princess, balancing the delightful whimsies of the one with the necessary intelligence and toughness of the other. She handles her wicked stepmother with political savvy, stands up to her bellicose father with unwavering conviction, and runs circles around Cloten with her sharp wit. Goering achieves peak performance with her "False to his bed!" speech after Pisanio has shown her his letter from Posthumus ordering the servant to kill her. Goering's Imogen at this point is just so fed up with men: Dad going off the deep end thanks to her royal bitch of a stepmother, stupid Cloten, creepy Iachimo, and now Posthumus calling her a whore and wanting her killed. What the hell? She's so totally pissed she goads Pisanio to do his master's bidding. That she ends up trusting the guy is all in the truthful performance of Fowler's portrayal of Pisanio (though the cross-gender casting may smooth our own psychological path to Imogen trusting him). Goering achieves a lovely moment in the finale when she listens to Iachimo describe Posthumus describing Imogen. The romantic glow returns to her face. Then, suddenly, Posthumus is there, berating Iachimo, and Goering's body almost explodes as her trampled faith finally wins out. Alas, she's still disguised as Fidele, so when she rushes to Posthumus he shoves her aside, then Pisanio intervenes, then Imogen shoves him aside and, O gods! the Doctor remembers the one thing he left out.

The more I learn about Shakespeare and Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, the more I see parallels in the pop culture of that time and the pop culture of our time. As Shakespeare was dragged through Victorian prudishness, Cymbeline was buried under righteous bardolatry. Convoluted, implausible, and sick the play may be, but only if you take it all too seriously. Me, I've long thought Shakespeare was just having fun when he wrote Cymbeline, and boy did I have fun watching Baltimore Shakespeare Factory play the play with true earnestness.

Eric Minton
March 16, 2019

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