Cymbeline has been referred to a tragedy, a comedy, a melodrama, and even a Shakespearean self-parody. Like Tom Delise’s notes in the program, I agree that Shakespeare has “thrown in everything but the kitchen sink into a sort of Greatest Hits.” There are nods to so many other plays throughout his career- was this a culmination? A clever exit strategy as he came to end of his career? Is it the “tour de force”?
The opening of the play is a lengthy and chunky exposition piece that provides context then thrusts us into a moment where Imogen (Sienna Goering) and Posthumus (Adam Henricksen) have already married to the disgruntlement of her father, the King, Cymbeline. And moments after that the Queen enters (Melissa Robinson) looking every part of a Disney evil step-mother possible. In tow is her son (Cloten) who she hopes will marry Imogen and take the throne. Incest is alive and well here again- they are not really related I know, but it is weird. And Imogen says Posthumus was her childhood friend the King raised in the castle. Does she not get out to meet anyone else? Any way, Posthumus is banished to Italy where he immediately bets his love token from Imogen with a swaggering Iachimo (Elijah Moreland). Through underhanded means, Iachimo sneaks into her bedroom and reports back to Posthumus that he totally hooked up with her. Posthumus is so devastated he orders Pisanio (Kaitlyn Fowler) to kill her. Imogen instead dresses in boy’s clothes and stumbles into a cave and drinks a potion that sends her into a deep sleep that replicates death (just yell uncle when you recognize a plot twist from another play- or better yet- shout the name of the play. Romeo & Juliet! Othello! As you Like It! Lear! Hamlet! Keep going kids, it is fun!). Posthumus and others join the army and fight so valiantly for Cymbeline, in the end he rewards them and listens to several revelations as everything knits together into a perfect rom-com ending. Birds chirp, rainbows emblazon the sky, you get the picture.
I think this play is little performed not because of any fault per say, there was some exceptional acting, lovely costume pieces, and fairly snappy witticisms. I think it just marred by verbose exposition that is hard to follow. Much of it is provided via a narrator and thrown at the audience so fast it is hard to take stock and inventory. To be honest, if I didn’t have a cheat sheet in my program (Thanks BSF) with a recapitulation of events and analysis, I would have had an even harder time following along. And I consider myself fairly well-versed in this area! I’ve read more than half of Shakespeare repertoire and have several tattoos in a devotional series to my heart song- Macbeth (TMI? Sorry- back to review).
Baltimore Shakespeare Factory has done some sprucing up! As I settled into my pew with wine and program to enjoy the pre-show music, I noticed the newly painted ceiling of the stage and newly embellished columns. Very nice. And reminds me of the Globe stage which I have had the pleasure of standing on not once, but twice!
Kendra Shapanus is quickly impressing me with her seamstress skills. These costumes were sharp, crisp, and with the right amount of period appropriateness and small nods to more modern and anachronistic trends. The Queen (Melissa Robinson) looked stately but also channeled her inner Maleficent. The King was funny in his red robe and almost a caricature of other Kings (a little Mel Blanc ish?). Warren S. Harris’ outfit as Cloten was complete with gloves (Disney says that means they are hiding something), and his spectacular Jupiter appearance was dazzling in a golden winged caplet. Kaitlyn Fowler as Pisanio was dark, Elijah Moreland as Iachimo was dark, tall, brooding, and somewhat undone. Brilliant. All of their costumes told a story that corresponded to their overwhelming personality trait. Lovely work.
The title character was a King who was maybe supposed to be taken seriously? I had trouble with it. He seemed almost a mockery of a King. And what father doesn’t recognize his own daughter as she dressed like a boy? Or his two missing sons? (Okay, that was a while ago but still). He is also a tool of the Queen who manipulates him, but Spark notes (the leading authority in Shakespeare lol) says he is a kind and gracious king. I had trouble with that. His counterpart is Melissa Robinson as the Queen. She seems too farcical to be sincere as well. She has a one track mind, manipulates those around her, and yet gets some laughs. She also doubles as a soothsayer later on in the production- so did she foresee her own demise? She does a nice job of striking the balance between comedy and tragedy without being too overbearing.
The centerpiece of the play is Imogen. Some say it is Posthumus, and he is lovely, but Imogen steals our hearts and the show. Sienna Goering is a perfect princess. So sweet, yet so irate. So willing to seek adventure, try new things, and make the most of what has been handed to her. Critics have stated she is the most developed character since Hamlet, but I wouldn’t go that far. This isn’t a psychological drama that justifies the apprehension and delay of a nervous young prince. No, this is a princess that fate has dealt a strange hand. And instead of taking it laying down and bemoaning it, she (wo)mans up and seeks her own future. She is less defined by the men who try to control her, and forges her own ideas. Bold stuff for 1611. Goering feels a bit Disney princess, a bit avid explorer, and a bit badass modern female. I was routing for her- she is not flawless and maybe that is why I loved her. Goering is to be commended for making Imogen full bodied without stealing the spotlight from her counterparts. Posthumus, her husband and would-be murderer (Adam Henricksen) is charming, tall, and apt at reciting monologues while cutting to the chase of the underlying emotion. He just seems too flippant, and his character is written that way I know, but he seems to change devotions on a dime. He loves her, bets against her, tries to have her murdered, slaps her around, then professes his love. Girl, you can do better.
Kaitlyn Fowler as Pisanio makes noble sacrifices to save her princess, defying the orders of her master Posthumus (yeah girl). She occasionally seems the only character not caught up in a slight mockery of her own characterization. Her common sense prevails and this plot needs a leader sometimes. Warren C. Harris is so funny I couldn’t watch anyone else. He plays the spoiled bratty son of a Queen who thinks he is God’s gift to the universe. From his sashays across the stage, to careless dismissals of others- he is comic gold. Marnie Kanarek, Henry Kramer, Marcy Xexelia have the arduous task of filling in all the minor characters. Along with interns Kas Schroeder and Damaria Quick. Between these five people they portray twenty-one different people! Damn! And some of those quick changes are punctuated by changed posture, hats, or simple cloaks, but their transitions are commendable.
Elijah Moreland is so tall. He looks staggering on the stage. The only thing larger than his shadow, is his ego. He marches boldly through the play with a mission for evil intentions. He seems rather unyielding, only in that I don’t fully understand his motives. Why intervene with young love? Just to prove it a hoax? Does his end justify his means? I think Moreland does great with what he has to work with- these are my imprints on the text itself.
And then there’s the cave-dwellers- Joe Lewis as Belarius and his two “sons” (i.e. snatched royal babies) Marnie Kanarek (Arviragus) and Michael Makar (Guiderius). They are bit well-dressed to be societal outcasts-but are hunting their own meal and stumble upon Imogen in disguise who introduces herself as Fidele. Once taken in and very briefly interacting with them, she takes a potion and falls into a deep sleep they mistake for death. The funeral song in 4.2 is the most famous of all the speeches in this play- and for a reason. It is gorgeous, and listening to Makar and Kanarek recite it almost conjured a tear in this chiseled old lady’s heart. A sample for those of you not dorky enough to have some it memorized (TMI again?)- “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun…” it begins, but culminates in “All lovers young, all lovers must consign to thee, and come to dust. No exorciser harm thee! Nor no witchcraft charm thee! Ghost unlaid forbear thee! Nothing ill come near thee! Quiet consummation have; and renowned be thy grave!” For those not on the Elizabethan poetry train- they wish her peace in death that life did not afford her. Double Damn.
Lastly, shout outs to Tegan Williams and Kaitlyn Fowler for the slow-motion fight sequence set to Chariots of Fire. I chuckled a bit too loud. I am sorry to be that lady in the audience.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? BSF has the overly ambitious mission to stage all of Shakespeare’s plays- even those not normally performed. It paid off with King John last year (an award winning show), and this is a decent contender as well. Is it the best Shakespeare play I’ve ever seen or read? No, but it is amazing what Delise does with the material, the acting is solid, the costumes and choreography on point. Escape your own problems for a bit and revel in the slap sticky comedy of mistaken identity, thwarted love, deception, poison, and more.
Running through March 10th. Running time just over two hours with one fifteen-minute intermission. Pre-show music begins thirty minutes before the show.