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Cymbeline, Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 9/6/07

As I mentioned the other day, this play tried to kill me once upon a time, but I still love it. I've never been very good at telling people why I love it, although I admit it's mostly that I love Imogen, and remain very grateful I had the opportunity to play her (even if it did try to kill me). I'm also inordinately fond of the "everything but the kitchen sink" nature of it, which I know drives some people up a tree. There's so much going on in this play that the last twenty minutes or so consists entirely of all the characters finally in one place, putting together the pieces of all the craziness that's been happening to them, to the extent that the final scene hinges almost entirely on the ability of the actor playing Cymbeline to maintain ever-escalating WTF? reactions without exploding. Everyone else's lightbulb moments are also important, but without that linchpin, you're toast.

This one has the linchpin, and it appears I'm going to be working backwards here. (Which, now that I think about it, probably wouldn't be a bad approach to teaching or directing the play...) Cymbeline, despite being the king and the title character, remains at the fringes of the action throughout, so he's pretty much the least informed principal character on stage by the time you get to the end. Which, since he's just finished running a war, will give you a bit of pause if you think about it. Larry Yando pulls off being hoodwinked by his queen and poleaxed by the dogpiling revelations without coming off as clueless -- he's a perfectly competent king who's just had his attention too taken up by the big picture to keep track of what's really going on in his own household. There's the sense -- there in the text, but not always teased out as clearly as it could be -- that yeah, he's pretty much always been a crappy judge of character and of whom he should trust (just ask Belarius), but he's finally, finally learning a little better in his old age. (One wonders how he got to old age with that particular flaw, but that's neither here nor there.)

It's in the second half of the play, after his long absence from Britain (and, largely, from the stage), that Posthumus comes into his own and seems like someone who might actually deserve Imogen after putting her through thirty-seven flavors of hell. In one of the many revisitings of threads from earlier plays, he's afforded the chance to do a vastly better job of redeeming himself than Claudio in Much Ado. It's always nice not to have a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach when the young romantic leads are reunited, y'know? I wasn't sure about Joe Sikora early on; he seemed like a bit of a nonentity. But as I think about it, well, Posthumus kinda is. Imogen rightly points out that they're in love pretty much because they were raised together -- neither is an adult or really a full person when the play begins. So when he finally turns up again, angsting over the bloody scrap of cloth that "proves" his wife is dead on his orders, there's quite suddenly a whole lot more to him. And by the time he faces down Iachimo -- and, by extension, his own demons -- on the battlefield, I really felt like there was a solid guy there.

That's also, perhaps not coincidentally, the point at which Juan Chioran's Iachimo ceases to effortlessly walk off with every scene he's in. He's every inch the cynical libertine indicated by the text, obviously secure in his conviction that not just women (as delineated by his speeches at Philario's) but human beings in general are rotten, the only worthwhile interaction is game-playing, and anyone who believes otherwise is a pathetic sucker to be mocked mercilessly. It's not often that a character like that, upon being slammed hard with evidence that there's a great big hole in his worldview, actually adjusts it. Iachimo does, and in this case, does believably, with the inevitable result that he's slouching there at the end radiating "Dude. I am pond scum. How the hell did that happen?" He doesn't have the slightest idea what to do with Posthumus' forgiveness, nor indeed should he. Everything that's happening with these people at that moment is utterly foreign to him, and it's clear he has no idea where to go from here. Clearer poetic-justice comeuppances have their charms, but for my money, this is the most apt payment for how he's lived his life.

Imogen. This is her play, from start to finish, and Chaon Cross owns it. As with Posthumus, I wasn't 100% sure at the beginning, but then I realized that they started out as "unfinished" people on purpose. In her case, of course, there's no huge break, and her growth happens entirely before our eyes. By the time she gets to Belarius' cave, she's ready for anything, but she's the only one who doesn't know it yet. There's no mistaking that this is a princess, who's probably barely seen the world past the palace grounds and can't hold the sword she's carrying without looking like she thinks it will bite her. But she never comes off as ditzy or pathetic, just out of her element. That's a hella tricky balance to pull off, and my hat is off to her.

Other notable performances: Ernest Perry, Jr.'s delivery of two or three of Cornelius' lines is worth the price of admission all by itself. Brian Sills' Cloten is high-freakin-larious. I never believed for a second that Imogen could really be in danger from him, but I'm not sure I care (and usually I do). Joel Hatch's Pisanio is the soul of loyalty and solid good sense. And Shanesia Davis' Queen is just plain divalicious wicked-stepmother fun.

Costumes: Gorgeous. WANT Imogen's cream dress, oh mercy me yes. The Queen's crown/headdress thingy is a little weird, but so is she, and it's weird in a glam-creepy sort of way.

Set: Very simple, as I totally believe it should be, with a drab grey "stone" wall on the proscenium portion of the stage, composed of movable sections that give different impressions of the palace, Belarius' cave, etc. The world is defined by light and a few small pieces of furniture, not the big clunky stuff, as befits both the play and the space (which, incidentally, I covet beyond the telling of it). I actually found a lot of the design and directorial choices to be very like what I was aiming for in my production, making it that much more of a pleasure to see them in a theatre with the resources, and under a hand (artistic director Barbara Gaines) with the experience to make them happen.

I was particularly struck by this in the presentation of the war, with the key fights (mainly Posthumus vs. Iachimo) choreographed and presented, and the rest represented by flag-bearers marching across one another's paths. While I did something very similar, I wish I'd thought of the way she clearly represented the outcome, with pages darting across the lines of flag-bearers, pulling the purple banners representing Rome from their staffs and replacing them with the British gold. In ten seamless seconds, it went from stylized battle to victory celebration, and my jaw was in my lap.

I could go on all day, but (a) 70% of it would be about the play rather than this production, and (b) a lot of it is just "Oooh, nice moment/reading/look/whatever" and not very useful unless you were there.

Sooper Sekrit Messij to swirling_poetry: Based on the evidence at hand, yes, I think maybe severed heads are simply funny no matter what. Even highly professional and convincing ones with exposed vertebrae sticking out the bottom. Although possibly it's less the head itself than Guiderius marching back onstage, holding it up and looking like he should be in an image macro that says "PWND!" But almost everyone in the place cracked up, and it wasn't just nervous laughter.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 8th, 2007 09:45 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much for the full accounting. I haven't read Cymbeline since school, so I opened it up the other night and reviewed the editorial introduction and a couple of scenes. It reminded me -- as I am always, not so not uniquely, reminded when I stumble into Shakespeare -- that it's worth re-experiencing these stories as I keep growing up.
Sep. 8th, 2007 10:26 pm (UTC)
You're very welcome.

There really is always more to find. I directed this one just seven years ago, and kept going "Ooh!"
Sep. 9th, 2007 09:19 am (UTC)
I make a mental note to add severed heads to the things that are funny.

Though after seeing The Lt. of Innishmore last week, I'm beginning to think that severed anything is funny. Or maybe just heads and feet sticking out of buckets. (It was the most unrepentantly violent plays I've seen, and also one of the most hysterical.)

I'm glad you liked the production. I have to admit I wasn't all that impressed with New Theatre's production, but I also realized that beyond the bad experience with the play, I don't like it all that much. I want to smack Posthumus for being a blundering idiot. Likewise Imogen most of the time.

It's strange - I've recently seen all of the cross-dressing plays, and Viola is the only heroine that I still adore. A lot of this could be production issues - I'll admit I haven't reread either Cymbeline or As You Like It in years. Imogen came across as a flighty dunderhead, not as a woman making the best choice available to her. Rosalind came across as extremely petty in her dealings with Orlando. In contrast, Viola consistently makes emotionally smart choices in bad circumstances.
Sep. 9th, 2007 09:41 am (UTC)
Oh, dude, Rosalind is so petty sometimes. And Imogen is pretty flighty. Those are in the text AFAIC. I don't think either invalidates their choices, though; they're just functions of being young and sheltered. And definitely if you don't see them at least starting to outgrow those flaws, something is Very Wrong.

Viola is, well, kinda perfect, really. Which is fine as far as it goes, but I've found I'm not keen on watching her slog through everyone else's lunacy for 2 1/2 hours when it's not particularly transformative for her.
Sep. 10th, 2007 05:16 pm (UTC)

Sep. 10th, 2007 05:27 pm (UTC)
Dude. He didn't even go. Still too traumatized, methinks...
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )


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