KPBS AIRDATE: SEPTEMBER 1, 1999
You may have seen reduced or ridiculous, comic or condensed Shakespeare, where theater troupes roll the Bard-works into a ball, one big mishmash, mélange of Elizabethan mayhem. But why bother? Shakespeare did that all by himself, in his late, not-so-great 1610 play, “Cymbeline.” The Bard has borrowed shamelessly from his earlier creations. Set in the pre-Christian world of “King Lear,” it also concerns a clueless king estranged from a loving daughter. It has the conniving step-parent of “Hamlet,” in the person of a wicked, gone-mad queen from “Macbeth,” the apothecary and death-simulating drug of “Romeo and Juliet,” the Roman potentates of “Julius Caesar,” the deadly spousal jealousy of “Othello,” even precipitated by a similar-sounding villain; here, it’s Iachimo, instead of Iago. And there are the usual array of ever-faithful servants, long-suffering, banished courtiers, royal children raised as peasants, and unrecognized siblings reunited as adults.
At the center of it all, there’s the stalwart, cross-dressing Rosalind of “As You Like It,” in the person of Imogen, the ever-constant daughter of King Cymbeline. She’s had the temerity to marry against her father’s wishes, bedding and wedding a commoner instead of her doltish, cloddish step-brother, Cloten. All this takes place in Britain, while over in Italy, there’s the side-story of Imogen’s banished husband Posthumus and the wager by the evil Iachimo that the princess is unfaithful, followed by Posthumus vengefully plotting his wife’s death. She’s meanwhile lost in the woods, dressed as a man, searching for him, but found by some gentle mountaineers who later turn out to be her long-lost brothers. In case the tragedy of family feuds and the comedy of mistaken identities aren’t enough, Shakespeare tosses in some history for good measure — a battle between the British and Roman armies, over a tribute Cymbeline has refused to pay to Rome. As confused as the multiple plots, Posthumus even fights on both sides of the battle, ultimately winning for Cymbeline’s army and being reunited with his beloved, who is reunited with her brothers, whose assumed father is reunited with his formerly foolish king.
So? Is it any wonder that director Daniel Sullivan decided to play fast and loose with all these mixed messages, genres, circumstances and plots? And why not? The pared-down, hodgepodge play does well in a wacky, self-conscious, wink-wink/nudge-nudge production. And it’s a hoot. Okay, the language isn’t handled well by all the players. Nor are the various accents, or all the 23 roles conveyed by a mere eight actors. And let’s not even talk about the singing. The original music, composed here for Shakespeare’s two songs, is unsingable — even if it were being sung by bona fide singers — which none of these deft performers is. A very amateurish element in a production that’s otherwise so fast-moving and sprightly, so silly and humorous and way-out and wacko that you can’t help but get caught up in it.
The stage is framed by a proscenium arch, a red-curtained jewel-box decorated with all manner of arcane, anachronistic characters, objects and references, from Napoleon to a suspended dirigible and a working Victrola, and the whole event is a play-within-a-play, a melodramatic vaudeville with actors frantically pulling props and bits of costumes from a trunk, to transform themselves, minimally and quite visibly, into a never-ending parade of quirky, almost caricaturish characters.
It may be irreverent, but it works. Sullivan shows that he can be light as well as dark… Last summer, his brilliant “Romeo and Juliet” was full of shadows and heavy portent. But “Cymbeline,” even in its more serious moments, is frivolous and preposterous. Shakespeare, who hid plenty of humor between the lines, would probably have been amused. And he would’ve loved Erika Rolfsrud, the noteworthy, pride-inducing graduate of the USD/Globe MFA program who makes for a luminous Imogen, the only steady piece of sanity in this unstable world.
It all comes out upbeat at the end — despite the downbeat music — when love, remorse and forgiveness conquer all. Would that it were so in real life — and as amusing, too!
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.