Dog and Pony DC's Cymbeline

Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s latest plays, is classified by scholars as a “romance,” and by non-scholars (well, by me) as “wacky.” Cymbeline has a complex plot, the equivalent of about five Shakespearean plays.

Cymbeline is the king of Briton. He has remarried recently, to an evil woman simple called the Queen. The Queen has a son from a previous marriage, Cloten. She wishes Cloten to reign and therefore wants him to marry Imogen, Cymbeline’s only child. Well, actually Cymbeline had two sons, but they were stolen away when they were babes, and no one knows where they are.

Imogen has no interest in marrying the buffoon Cloten. She is in love with Posthumus, a man noble in spirit but not noble in blood. Before the play begins they have secretly been married, and discovered. Posthumus is banished and he runs away to Italy.

While in Italy Posthumus meets the braggart Iachimo. Iachimo hears Posthumus praising Imogen’s beauty and faithfulness, and bets Posthumus that he can get Imogen to sleep with him in only one night. Iachimo doesn’t succeed, but he convinces Posthumus that he does. Stricken, Posthumus orders his servant Pisano to murder Imogen. To wrap this summary up, Pisano warns Imogen, she dresses as a boy, and out in the wilderness meets an old man and his two sons, who are in fact the king's lost sons. There is a war between Briton and Rome. Briton ends up victorious and in the final scene everyone’s true identities are revealed, the lovers are reunited, and peace is declared.

Director Wyckham Avery’s solution to all this confusion is to approach the play in a non-traditional manner. Instead of a cast of almost thirty dressed as befitting royalty, seven actors (JJ Area, Jim Gagne, Rachel Grossman, Wendy Nogales, Becky Peters, Lorraine Ressegger, and Christian Sullivan) in black and white share all the roles. To make it clear who is playing whom at what point, this production draws inspiration from the archetypal characters of commedia dell’ arte. The main characters are given identifiable physicalities that each actor takes on whenever he or she assumes a role. Pisano the servant is withdrawn into himself, with hunched shoulders, and arms straight down his sides. The Queen stands erect, holding her arms out gracefully and swooping as she walks.

Bereft of costumes and sets, the action is enhanced through the use of two blackboards. The actors draw family trees, pictures of the setting, and love notes on these boards. This, combined with the youth of the actors, gave the whole play a fun schoolyard atmosphere. Despite the simple staging and repetitiveness of drawing on the boards before every scene, it is a credit to the creativeness of the director and actors that this device never becomes static. The boards don’t just show the scene, they become part of it, such as when Posthumus sails off to Italy; the blackboard with a sailing ship drawn on it is slowly pulled away from the other board.

The concept boosts some aspects of the play, while diminishing others. The playfulness of the production allows the strangest aspects of the play to make sense. The audience isn’t thrown off guard when Imogen mistakes Cloten’s beheaded body for Posthumus, or when Jupiter appears out of nowhere for one scene. But the beautiful emotional moments contained in Cymbeline get skirted over in this production. We can’t root for the lovers. “Fear No More,” able in some production to bring tears has no such affect here. Posthumus’s wrenching misogynistic speech on the faults of women is turned into a one-note rant.

Ultimately the concept falls short of what it is capable of accomplishing. The problem is that the physicalities chosen just aren’t extreme or clear enough. The actors were not fully invested in truly inhabiting the physical type established. Iachimo, for example, looked quite different depending on which actor was playing him. Also disappointing is the fact that the physicalities had no effect on the actor’s vocal choices. If the same actors are going to playing all the characters, they can’t just look different, they need to sound different.

The verse speaking is for the most part fairly good. An active speaking pace is maintained throughout the performance. There wasn’t a single actor who didn’t stumble on lines at some point, but this problem should clean itself up as the run progresses.

In the director’s notes, Wycham Avery states that perhaps it would have been smarter to try this staging with a play more familiar to audiences. On the contrary, a play like Cymbeline is a great choice, because the bare bones setting and to the point action creates a great introduction of the play to audience members unfamiliar with the work. Avery should continue working with and perfecting this concept. It would be great to see it applied to more of the Bard in the future. Also, how wonderful would it be for this production or one like it to be taken to local schools? What an educational opportunity to introduce children and adults alike to Shakespeare, high energy theatre, and physical performance.

3 stars
through April 27th


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