Shakespeare’s absurd and goofy "Cymbeline" doesn’t show up very often. There was a commendably decent staging by the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival in 1981, and an amusingly indecent staging by JoAnne Akalaitis for the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1989. This production that Mark Lamos originally directed for the Hartford Stage and has modified for the larger McCarter stage, marks only the third time I’ve seen the play. As "Cymbeline" continues to prove itself too outrageous for its own good, I am grateful for the eight to nine-year intervals.
For acknowledged Shakespeare specialist Lamos, "Cymbeline" serves to bookend his 17 years as artistic director at Hartford Stage. Whatever change, reconsideration, and revision Lamos afforded "Cymbeline" in 17 years, the result doesn’t change the fact that "Cymbeline" is no more or less than an Elizabethan soap opera. The play simply asks the question: Can a valiant and chaste woman survive slander, poison, the treachery of an evil queen, a war, and a distrustful husband and still find true happiness?
With its emphasis on impossible and improbable plot machinations, "Cymbeline" falls into a genre of romantic tragicomedies popular during the period where spectacle, shock, and plot twists take precedence over character and plausibility. Given Lamos’ visually impressive exoticized vision, the spectacle is dotted with rewards. Yet this is not to suggest that the dazzling three-hour display doesn’t invite tedium.
A gleaming ebony-paneled set (designed by Paul Steinberg) frames the bare stage. Overhead, shimmering quivering golden mobiles drip moons, stars, books, and stylized lightning bolts. Rear panels open kaleidoscopically and we are in a kingdom that looks less like Britain than ancient Baghdad.
Behold an Arabian Nights fantasy where all that is missing is Maria Montez doing the hoochy kooch, and Tony Curtis announcing "Yonda lies da castle of my fadda." It is here that costume designer Susan Hilferty pays homage to the campy sex and sand films of yore and to Shakespeare’s own flair for the miraculous and the incredible. If you aren’t sufficiently dazzled by the multi-layered, garishly colored silks and robes befitting a Caliph’s court, you will surely "ooh" and "ah" at the Italian court. Here, with its rich blacks and browns, the haute couture resembles Sergio Armani. All this is in contrast to the quiet neutrals sported by those relegated to the Welsh hills.
The plot, which is more congealed than thick, has to do with the tender
and loving princess Imogene, here played beautifully by an unaffectedly "goddess-like" Felicity Jones, who marries, against her father King Cymbeline’s wishes, the handsome Posthumus, an adopted commoner, instead of Cloten, her crude and jealous stepbrother. As Cymbeline, Michael Lipton brought class and stature to his hen-pecked status. Rick Holmes, as Posthumus, offers us the noble profile to match his punctured pride. Yet there is no denying the high antics and right-on repulsiveness that make Kyle Babel’s Cloten a memorable scene-stealer.
In true fairy-tale style, the noble and virtuous Imogene barely survives a seduction by Iachimo (given an arrestingly unctuous delivery by Eddy Saad), a poisoning plotted by her stepmother (performed in the age-old tradition of evil queens by Cristine McMurdo-Wallis), and another seduction attempt by her stepbrother. She even ends up a prisoner of war on the wrong side before the final reconciliation. There is some bright and lively roughhouse performing by C.J. Wilson and Al Espinosa as the lost sons of Cymbeline. And Christopher Coucill gives an appealing performance as the boys’ guardian.
As these performances attest, Lamos must be credited for creating a make-believe world inhabited by real people who take each absurd twist of fate dutifully and seriously. The awesome descent of Jupiter, lightning bolts in hands, astride the wings of a thunderbird, also attests to this production as a celebration of Lamos’ exotic stagecraft. Despite the convoluted story, he aims his "Cymbeline" as an eye-opening celebration of virtue and its pitfalls.