A little farce goes a long way, howeverespecially when it's
as over the top as it is herewhich is why this Cymbeline
starts to drag toward the end of the first half, just as Imogen
dons her mannish disguise, weighed down by a little too much directorial
jokiness overlaying the action.
For example, Scheie overplays the attraction that various charactersincluding
her brothers, the Roman general, and her fathereach feel for
Imogen as Fidele at first sight, presenting it as a bewitching effect
of her pseudonym alone, aided by the nose-wiggling noise with which
Samantha practiced her magic in (you guessed it) Bewitched.
Alternatively, he makes it seem sniggeringly homoerotic at its core,
rather than fueled by the presence of what is actually an beautiful
woman in disguise.
[L-R] Polydore (Adam Ludwig), Imogen (Susannah Schulman)
and Cadwal (Matthew Orduna). Photo courtesy SSC.
This approach is of a piece with Steven Grenley's double-take as
a Cage au Folles-ish Cornelius and Soothsayer, or the multiple
encores Scheie gives to a streaking Posthumusnudity and a
few Pictish tattoos being the "silly habit" he dons in
this production after he crosses over to the British resistance
in Act V.
Nor do the somewhat undersized TV screens that frame the stage
provide very compelling background visuals, except in the case of
Posthumus' famous dream, which as stagedor rather televisedhere
is worth the price of admission alone. Jupiter appears on the monitors
as an animated creation straight out of South Park, with a large
classic mask superimposed on what, from a distance, looked like
a tiny cherub's bodymore Sadaam Hussein than Satan, though
with a most sonorous and stentorian voice.
Strange to say, but Jupiter's uncredited
voice gave perhaps the best performance of the play as a whole.
Why? Simply because it achieved a much better approximation of the
tone needed to get the most powerful effects out of Shakespeare's
romances. While farce is not uncalled for, it needs to be less wink-wink
joky, and retain more of a potentially serious edge, than Scheie
allows his actors here.
All the schematism and silliness that you can't avoid in staging
a romancewithout turning it into something else entirely,
a lesser tragedy at bestmust not completely undermine the
communication at times of extreme, literally inhuman threats on
the one hand, and the deepest, most humanizing of emotions on the
other. Indeed, the schematic nature of the plot (and even, at times,
the language) can actually intensify these effects by supplying
the degree of distance we need to indulge them fully, yet with a
kind of tranquility, without feeling engulfed or overwhelmed by
This was the secret of the unusual, and in my experience unprecedented,
success of the Pericles presented at Ashland last season.
The almost comic-book style of Shakespeare's first romance was preservedno
vain attempts to make the representation seem more 'realistic'yet
only to provide some distance on the more tawdry and troubling aspects
of the plot, so they didn't distract too much from the deep emotional
resonances this play proved entirely capable of generating. Who
would guess such power lurked under the covers of a play that, today,
typically ties with its successor Cymbeline as the least
admired play in Shakespeare's cannonthough in Shakespeare's
own lifetime, perhaps his greatest popular success. Given the similarities
with contemporary romance novels, this kind of effect, together
with its great popularity, might even define romance as a genre.
Unfortunately, this Cymbeline doesn't have the confidence
of that Pericles. Not trusting Shakespeare enough, Scheie
puts too much of his slapstick self into the production, adulterating
Yet as I noted in beginning, a little slapstick does seem entirely
appropriate for this play, more so than for Pericles. Both
plays cry out for their audience to indulge the fantasy of discovering
Queen Elizabeth's body politic still alive some five years into
the reign of her successor, and the political "family"
she never quite had long-since waiting to be reunited. At the same
time, Cymbeline in particular encourages them to vent the
scorn they must have felt for James' impolitic attempt to unite
his two kingdomspresented in the political iconography of
the time as an arranged marriage between his English daughter and
her Scottish stepbrother, with Great Britain as their childby
laughing at the farcical representative of this project within the
play, "oh where's his head?" Cloten.
Even a little excess humor can't detract from the crescendo that
builds recognition upon recognition in the final scene, though the
silly little tone that Scheie uses to call attention to each one
as it occurs does come close. Of course, we already know who everyone
is and what they've been unaware of as it happened. The point is
the characters get a chance to find out in front of us, and we also
to be amazed at the wonderful complexity of plot and situation that's
been set up for rapid recall at the close.
Of the actors not yet mentioned, Susannah Schulman as Imogen has
the quick intelligence needed to portray her as the strong interpreter
of appearances she is, even if she sometimes gets it (as in the
case of the headless Cloten) all wrong. Gary Armagnac makes for
an engagingly arch and ironic Cymbeline, not the doddering old fool
he's often reduced to. Andy Murray as Iachimo goes beyond the call
of duty to present a finely nuanced realization that belongs in
a better production, or perhaps an entirely different play.
A word in closing on the seeming contempt with which Shakespeare
Santa Cruz treats its single-performance ticket holders. On this
notably idyllic campus, there must be a better place to put the
non-subscribers line than on filthy stretch of blacktop. There must
also be a better way of allocating the space inside the theater
than to have us line up there an hour and a half early, and open
the theater just 40 minutes before the performance starts, when
most of the picnics we had brought were already eaten. My companion
and I did have the presence of mind to rent a couple of plastic
Adirondack chairs that had already been set up in semi-permanent
rows in the Festival Glen for a dollara great improvement
over previous years, when toward the end of the run the place had
become a dust bowl. Why not go all the way and populate the entire
glen with these chairs, making them into numbered, assigned seatsas
already has been done for well-heeled sponsors? That way we all
could enjoy a nice picnic on a our own private hillside somewhere
before seating startsnot a depressing one in a parking lot.
Cymbeline performed Saturday, June 29, 2000 at
8:00pm, presented by Shakespeare