Just why Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” is rarely performed really isn’t a mystery. Scholars of the Bard rate it rather low, along with “Titus Andronicus” and “Troilus and Cressida.” There is no denying, however, that the compulsively contrived plot is just chock full of melodramatically complex doings. In fact, it is so complex that after seeing a production yesterday (Sunday matinee) at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, I am still hard pressed to remember who did what to whom and why. The comings and goings of some of Shakespeare’s most ridiculous and bizarre characters, most of whom have been rightfully excused from fame, are without a doubt accurately seen as absurd.
The dense plot has to do with the tender and loving princess, Imogen, who marries, against the wishes of her hen-pecked father, King Cymbeline, the poor but worthy Posthumus, an adopted commoner, instead of Cloten, her clumsy and stupid stepbrother. Through a bit of circumstantial evidence, she becomes a target of her husband’s jealously and distrust after his abrupt banishment. In true fairy tale style, the noble and virtuous Imogen barely survives a seduction by her husband’s friend, a poisoning plotted by her stepmother and another seduction attempt by her stepbrother. She even ends up a prisoner of war on the wrong side before the final curtain. Except for Imogen’s faithfulness (of course), everything that happens is absolutely unbelievable.
Director Joe Discher, who is celebrating his 16th season as an associate artist with STNJ, has unfortunately chosen to steer clear of any imaginative consideration of this make-believe world. To make matters more so-what-ish, he has gathered together a rather lackluster cast. The company on the whole seems content to merely dutifully contend with each absurd twist of fate. One looks in vain for some visual or cerebral excitement to bring out the best in a play that is by its nature too outrageous for its own good. Even the battle scene, under the usually invigorating command of fight director Rick Sordelet, is dull.
Brian Ruggaber’s tiered set design is uninteresting and most notable for its two mobile staircases that are reconfigured with frequency to indicate changes in locale. Costume designer Maggie Dicks gets a lot of mileage out of the color red.
Not quite a pushover for a wicked queen (played by Delphi Harrington, in red velvet), Richard Bourg’s King Cymbeline wavers majestically between incredible naivete and dimwittedness. The annual Woman of the Year award during the 27th year of the reign of Octavius most definitely had to go to Princess Imogen (Charlotte Parry, who recently appeared in “The Birthday Party” at McCarter Theater) for surviving, in and out of her male impersonation, her plight. In 2006, Parry can take credit for surviving Shakespeare’s poetry and giving us a few convincing torments.
There was never so moronic a villain as Mark H. Dold’s Cloten, as he demonstrates his ineptness and awkwardness in all things with a particular emphasis placed on his asininely demonstrated skill as a warrior. One is grateful for the occasional appearance of Delphia Harrington, as the menacingly evil queen, apparently the model for Snow White’s wicked stepmother (as speculated by literary historians). Harrington’s front and center indications of loathsomeness were quite welcome.
Perhaps there was a bit more commonness than nobility in Derek Wilson’s Posthumus, but he revealed just enough desperation during the performance to match that of his beloved Imogen. The virile countenance of Mark Elliot Wilson, as Belarius, a banished British nobleman, is noted as is that of Jared Zeus and Jordan Coughtry, who play the lost sons of Cymbeline. The scene, in which they carry on a stuffed skin of a very real-looking bear they have just killed for dinner, got appreciative chuckles. The two most impressive performances come from a convincingly perplexed Michael Stewart Allen, as Posthumus’s servant, Pisanio, and from comely Robert Gomes, as the deceitful Italian, who instigates the havoc and misunderstandings that ensue.
If Discher’s direction is to be faulted it is for not making this “Cymbeline” as much fun as it can or should be and in forgetting that this play, whether written in collaboration or not (as it is speculated) should be a joyous celebration of virtue and its pitfalls. While Discher can be praised for not falling into the trap of parody that too often affixes itself to “Cymbeline,” he has, nevertheless, allowed the play to become tedious over the course of three hours and bereft of any significant directorial enrichment.
“Cymbeline,” through Sunday, December 31, Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, Madison. 973-408-5600.