A Bedtime Story for and about a Little Girl
Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, D.C.,
Tuesday, February 8, 2011, H–113&114 (center left stalls)
Directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman
Cymbeline is a problem play—not just in the traditional sense that it isn't easily classified as a tragedy, comedy, or history, but also in the practical sense that it has inherent problems making it hard to stage for modern audiences. Although it is one of Shakespeare's four late romances, I find it more kin to All's Well That Ends Well: both contain electrifying poetry and sharp lines, but long stretches of plodding verse; both have singularly great characters, even in small roles, but many more characters of little distinction, even in lead roles; and both have suspenseful storylines but implausible plots.
The Shakespeare Theater Company in the past year has presented both plays in fairy tale mode: All's Well as a turn-of-the-century Shavian play of manners, and now Rebecca Bayla Taichman's Cymbeline as a bedtime story read by a woman (Dee Pelletier) to a little girl (Zoe Wynn Briscoe). This sufficiently addressed the problem of implausible plot (I mean, really, does Snow White make any more sense than Cymbeline?). Pelletier reading from an oversize storybook effectively got us into the play (replacing the gossiping gentlemen at the open) and constantly reminded us we were watching a fairy tale (aided by Riccardo Hernandez's surreal set of tree limbs and rivers, and Miranda Hoffman's costumes combining modern dress with vaguely medieval chain mail).
A downside was Pelletier and Briscoe reading the parts of Posthumous' parents and Jupiter, respectively, in the dream. This not only sacrificed Jupiter's majestic and thematically key speech by having a young girl of limited projection read it, it also meant the audience missed out on the spectacle of seeing the god descend on an eagle (with the fairy tale motif established, there would have been no illogical jump to the god's actual appearance).
This Cymbeline earned its proper laughs, and the burial scene was a transcendent moment. Yet, the play didn't sustain any momentum, as characters doggedly work through their multilayered speeches pronouncing extremes of sleeve-worn emotions. This may not be entirely Shakespeare's fault, though, for while portions of the cast plodded through their lines, three of the silliest serious characters in the Shakespeare canon—Belarius and the lost princes—proved to be this production's highlight because of their line readings. Aside from their burial song and Polydore zipping off some great insults at Cloten, the three characters as written by Shakespeare are over the top in their innocence and earnestness. Rather than run from this fact, Michael Rudko, Justin Badger, and Alex Morf embraced these caricatures as written, devoting such energy to each line and gesture they become loveably heroic.
Meanwhile, Cloten is the prototype Snidely Whiplash–type villain, and Leo Marks played to the role's humor rather than anything too sinister so that Cloten's preening ridiculousness outlived his own head. Iachimo is one of Shakespeare's most subtle villains, not so much evil as egomaniacal, even displaying pangs of guilt as he carries out the tragic deception at the heart of the play's plot. Adrian La Tourelle deftly navigated these nuances from his initial goading of Posthumous through his attempted seduction of Imogen to his final retribution. In William Youmans, the steadily loyal Pisanio earned the audience's trust even as other characters accused him of treachery.
Problematic is the Queen, the play's greatest evil but such an adept seducer she convinces even the playwright himself to make her more friendly than fiendish. Here the fairy tale setting assisted in a role's reading as Franchelle Stewart Dorn likened the Queen to Little Mermaid's Ursella. Then there's Imogen, the shakiest of Shakespeare's heroines; Gretchen Hall's tact was to grab a tight hold of her naïve innocence and never let go.
As a bedtime story, this Cymbeline ran the risk of sending the audience off to sleep thanks to the mostly rote rendering of the verse. Fortunately, Marks kept it fun, La Tourelle kept it interesting, and the lost princes kept it playful as the most animated of action figures.
February 10, 2011