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Six Concepts in Search of an Auteur

promising Cymbeline inaugurates new Artistic Director's tenure at Seattle's Intiman Theatre

By Prospero

Seattle 3/14&30/2001 | Getting the chance to see a fully mounted professional production of Cymbeline was once a rare event. But here less than a year after Shakespeare Santa Cruz's effort comes another opportunity to witness what a director can make of this crazy-quilt hodge podge of a play, with its plenteous echoes of nearly every major moment Shakespeare ever wrote, thrown into plot so convoluted that only the even less known Pericles can hope to match it—though even Pericles can't approach the thrilling concentration of recognitions Cymbeline packs into its final scene. The romances are truly coming into their own at the turn of the new millennium—a very welcome turn of events, as far as I'm concerned.
 

an attractive venue

The current production is at Seattle's Intiman Theatre, the Seattle Rep's younger and less well-endowed—if no less professional—sister, which performs in the building the Rep used to inhabit before it built a new home across the street. Clued into my presence in town by her colleague at the Rep—or by the review of its A Midsummer Night's Dream posted here—the Intiman's engaging Communications Director Stephanie Coen emailed an invitation to attend—and I and my companion were only too happy to oblige.

This Cymbeline is also a coming-out party of sorts for the new Artistic Director Bart Sher, who arrived too late to put much of a mark on the Intiman season last year. This year he's out of the blocks early, making Cymbeline—which Sher last directed at the 1998 Idaho Shakespeare Festival, successfully enough to attract the attention of several Intiman Board members—the first play of the 2001 season and his own Seattle directorial debut.
 

costumes drama

The result is a promising if incompletely jelled effort that mixes several culturally and historically disparate styles of staging—Japanese Kabuki, Peking Opera, singing cowboy Western, bare-stage absurdist, Alice-in-Wonderland psychedelic, traditional Renaissance, and several others—to no very apparent end. This Cymbeline is like a costume drama—just with six or seven different styles of costume (hats off to Costume Designer Elizabeth Caitlin Ward).

Each concept had its moments, and some—in particular the singing cowboy one—gathered enough steam to generate exciting effects. But an overall vision to organize and in the darkness bind them to some larger goal never quite materialized, leaving us to wonder what precisely was Sher's point—other than to present a portfolio of the kind effects he's capable of producing.

Given the lack of a convincingly unifying vision, it's probably best to take each concept separately, focusing on what worked well and could perhaps have figured in a better, more organized production.
 

asia

Cymbeline and his daughter Imogen are drawn from an Asian theatrical tradition—whether Kabuki or Peking opera, considering the lack of development given to the appropriation, is probably immaterial. This choice fits well with the casting of the diminutive Julyana Soelistyo—who originated the title role of David Henry Hwang's Golden Child, for which she was nominated for a Tony after it reached Broadway—as Imogen.


Julyana Soelistyo as Imogen. Photo by Chris Bennion.

I was afraid at first that her size and slightly accented English might get in the way of her performance—but Soelistyo's large talent, combined with a spectacular karate-kick to Iachimo's face and the sheer physical comedy of her hugging reunion with her much taller brothers, had won me over by evening's end. Plus—she looked so cute when, disguised as Fidele, she switched to chaps!

One unfortunate consequence of the Asian concept: Cymbeline feels it appropriate to strike his daughter when she angers him at one point early in the play—which spoils the shock of Posthumus's similar gesture towards the end. But Imogen and Pisanio's flight to Wales—a tableau of parasols against the driven snow drawn straight out of a Hiroshige woodblock—almost made up for it.
 

alice

Imogen's opponents the Queen and her son Cloten were from a completely different, Alice-in-Wonderland world—or something like the Laugh In world of last year's Santa Cruz production.

Cloten was at his most effective when he rode a kind of hobby horse around—especially at the end of the final scene, as an amusingly headless horseman in the background. Joe Conley Golden does yeoman's service in this thankless role. Anne Allgood as the Queen does a fine job of conveying her two-faced manipulation of those around her—except when she goes a little overboard with vituperation.

Jonathan Epstein as Iachimo stuck to more traditional Renaissance costume—which suited his delicious Machiavellian schemer nicely. Epstein was a master at telegraphing the intelligence behind the twists and turns of Iachimo's scheming, the sprezzatura of his every ploy and posturing entirely manifest. Unfortunately, his speeches did sometimes have a tendency to get a little caught in his throat.
 

autry

What worked best of all was the cowboy concept Sher uses to bring the hills of Wales alive—with the sound of music! You'd be surprised how well a Western accent can convey the emotion behind the Welsh contingent's lines—while also fostering the amusement and emotional detachment (on the audience's part) needed for them to have their full effect (on this effect, see my review of the Santa Cruz production). Dan Peterson played Belarius as Slim Pickens reincarnated, with David Gehrman as Guiderius and Alban Dennis as Arviragus no slouches in the torch and twang department either.


Julyana with Jason Cottle as Posthumus. David Gehrman, Alban Dennis, and Dan Peterson in background. Photo by Chris Bennion.

Sher does go a little over the top with the quirky cowboy song that ends the first half, and the "Love is in the Air" that ends the second upstages Cymbeline's famous last words of reconciliation ("Let a Roman and a British ensign wave friendly together"). "Stand by Your Man" plays over the PA system on the way out the door, completing the thematically appropriate trio. Still, these moments of tuneful lunacy were truly the highnotes of the night.
 

the bad and the ugly

What didn't work? Well, the annoying wooden clappers that an onstage musician sounded too loudly every time Sher wanted to make sure the audience was paying attention, for starters. The bare red stage with a shower curtain drawn across it for purposes of discovery, which just looked cheap and ugly. The acoustics of this bare stage, which muffled the voices of the actors in the unfinished concrete of the distant coulisses. The lighting, which was mostly an unrelieved blaring white of most every light in the place. The attenuation of mid-line caesuras and extension of end-of-line pauses, which lent a stumbling cadence to many a speech. The elimination of every ghost of Posthumus's family except his Miss Haversham-like mother, completely skewing Jupiter's descent. And the weirdly omniscient "storyteller" presences costumed á la Mark Twain, who took over not only the First and Second Gentlemen's parts, but also Cornelius the physician, Jupiter, Philario, probably other roles, in a fashion more confusing than illuminating—Sher is no Robert Wilson, after all.
 

redemption

But the beauty of Cymbeline is that nothing—in my experience so far at least—can destroy the pleasures of the final recognition scene. No matter how many times you've seen or read it, you can't help but marvel at how Shakespeare ties up all the loose ends of plot and socio-political alienation here, in a resolution as wholly improbable as it remains intensely, emotionally satisfying: I guess we'd all love to wake up and find our world so much more intimately interrelated than we've any right to expect.

And if the several completely disjoint production concepts Sher puts in play here have any excuse, it's likely to be their contribution to our sense of wonder that all these people turn out to be closely related when the manifold ways they've touched each other's lives are finally revealed—even if these concepts have precious little intrinsic justification for coming together.

So I guess when all is said and done this Cymbeline does kinda work, as Sher seems (based on the press release) to have intended it, as an allegory of multiculturalism in the theater—though with all the weakness inherent in such a loose form of cultural togetherness.
 

my riff

What I personally would rather have seen, would be for Sher to have parsed his different cultural vocabularies out amongst a bevy of more focused productions—if only to give each tradition a star turn of its own—and dedicated his Cymbeline to the one that works best here: the Western one. Then if he wanted to do something truly political—why not explore and reconcile the differences within that culture by allegorizing contemporary political events—as Shakespeare himself seems to have done with the Jacobean project of Union in penning this play.

Just imagine: what if Cloten began the allegory by appearing more and more clearly as a species of George W. Bush impersonator, following his early rhetorical faux pas with an impassioned speech in favor of giving the British a tax cut. His mother the Queen might then start to channel Lynne Cheney, imagining her husband's demise and her own political ascendancy not only in a novel, but in the strategies she brings to actual events. Cymbeline could become Cheney himself, or better (though not quite as Western) his ally William Rehnquist, kingmaker of the Dubya to be. Though more Country than Western, who better for Iachimo than our suave former lothario-in-chief Bill Clinton, threatening God-bless-America Imogen with his inimitably seductive ways—Stand by Your Man indeed. Reagan'd have to figure in here too—an actual ex-cowboy actor become ex-President could hardly be omitted. Maybe the ghost of Posthumus's father would serve his turn: "Happy Trails toooo Yooooou…"

Now that's the kind of Cymbeline I could really get behind at the turn of the present millennium. Sher's already half way there in this production. For the rest—I look forward to many promising Intiman productions to come from an Artistic Director of a range as wide and skill as promising as this.

As for other Shakespeare fans out there, this Cymbeline is definitely worth taking in if you live in Seattle, or are already planning a trip here for some other reason. If not, well, Sher's Intiman isn't really worth a special trip—yet. But it'll be very interesting to see what develops.
 

3/30 update

My companion and I returned to give this Cymbeline another chance a couple of weeks later, having in the meantime purchased a subscription for the entire season—on happy hour night no less, when playgoers congregate an hour or two early for complimentary cakes and ale (for Cymbeline courtesy the new W Hotel's restaurant and Hale's Ales).

Not only were we more relaxed, but several of the actors seemed to have settled nicely into their roles as well. Anne Allgood was even better as the Queen, Jonathan Epstein schemed even more suavely as Iachimo, and Jason Cottle, whom I didn't find a chance to mention before, could have been Hugh Grant's more athletic twin brother as the Posthumus Leonatus of the battle scenes. Only Julyana Soelisty, alas, was having an off night as Imogen, seeming hesitant and chirpy in the role.

But in the main, a second sitting served to confirm my previous judgments of the production. The play dragged even more until we were home on the range in Wales at last just before intermission. This time the cowboy interludes were welcome from the first, where before they seemed downright peculiar until we'd become better acquainted. A couple of weeks had also improved the comic timing of the final scene, now become a thing of power as it deserves.

 

 

 

 
Copyright 2001 Dana Spradley, Publisher, for shakespeare.com.
First posted Monday March 19, 2001. Last updated Monday April 2, 2001.
 
 

 

 

 

For further details on the Intiman Theatre's 2001 season, see their website.