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"Cymbeline" Features Potpourri of Comedy, Tragedy and Romance In Action-Packed Intime-Princeton Shakespeare Co. Collaboration

Donald Gilpin

There's more than one reason why Shakespeare's Cymbeline is seldom produced. Written in 1609-10 near the end of the Bard's career, just before The Winter's Tale (1610) and The Tempest (1611), Cymbeline is a sprawling, disjointed, plot-laden hodge-podge of a play. Is it history? (The title character Cymbeline, according to the chronicles, was king of Britain at the time of Christ's birth.) Is it tragedy? comedy? tragicomedy? farce? parody? myth? fairy tale? romance? or all of the above?

With more than 40 listed characters (from kings and queens and a wicked stepmother to comic villains, an array of ghosts, and Jupiter himself) and 27 scenes set in such disparate locales as the court of ancient Britain, the countryside in Wales, Rome (Ancient or Renaissance?), battlefields, and elsewhere, not to mention the wildly diverse plot twists (ranging from poignantly realistic to wildly absurd), Cymbeline promises to be any director's nightmare.

Jed Peterson, ambitious Princeton University junior, has taken up the directorial challenges with intelligence and imagination. He has scaled the play down by at least one-third, populated the kingdoms of Britain and Italy and the Murray Theatre stage with a mere 13 performers assembled mostly from Theatre Intime and the Princeton Shakespeare Company, and introduced a "postmodern" framing device to compound the chronological chaos of Shakespeare's eccentric masterpiece.

Directors have frequently adapted and shortened Cymbeline in productions over the years, attempting to allay the bewilderment of audiences and critics and to capitalize on the conspicuous merits of the play. These noteworthy attributes include the character of Imogen, a long-suffering heroine in the mold of Rosalind from As You Like It and Viola from Twelfth Night; much richness of poetic language throughout the play; a plot that, despite its incoherence, at times echoes both of the aforementioned comedies as well as The Comedy of Errors and the great tragedies Othello and King Lear; the colorful, warm spirit of romance; and the powerful, timeless themes of rebirth and regeneration, the loss and recovery of children by parents, and the affirming power of history to inform and substantiate the present.

Cymbeline possesses more than its share of the wonders of Shakespeare's creative imagination, but Mr. Peterson and his strong, capable company have not solved all of the problems inherent in any production of this peculiar classic. Lack of clarity in diction and projection, exacerbated by the challenges of Shakespeare's elaborate poetic lines, cause some difficulty here. The actors must take the time and energy to make those lines and their characterizations clear. Contorted, disjointed, and improbable as it is, the plot must be made accessible to the audience.

Mr. Peterson's streamlining and modernizing help to engage the audience. The performers initially enter through the theater as a company of actors in modern dress. They sit in the front row, watch as they await their entrances, and occasionally make their presence known throughout the evening. The opening exposition cleverly and effectively emerges as two minor characters interweave amongst the principal characters of the opening scene, and narrative alternates with action. Lively rock music interludes replace the traditional songs. Such innovations, sometimes disruptive or distracting in Shakespearean productions, will not offend purists or cause problems to this already chaotic work. In fact, this somewhat lackluster production needs to push even further in accepting and celebrating the obvious inconsistencies and incongruities of Cymbeline.

While many of his rival playwrights were struggling to observe the unities of time, place, plot and theme, Shakespeare, with the great tragedies just behind him and the great romances just ahead, was obviously enjoying the freedom of ranging as widely as possible in the diversity of his art. The most appropriate directorial approach and maximum pleasure for audiences would seem to lie in embracing the rich incongruity, artificiality, and absurdity with all the energy and imagination available. Mr. Peterson, Intime and PSC are on the right track here, but they would be wise to let out all stops in their second weekend of performances.

The play opens in the court of King Cymbeline (J. Paul Stephens) in ancient Britain. Posthumus (Andy Brown), a poor but virtuous gentleman who has been brought up at court, has married Princess Imogen (Kate Miller) against the wishes of her father Cymbeline, who is strongly influenced by his evil Queen (Zelda Harris), his second wife and Imogen's stepmother, who wants her own oafish son Cloten (Arthur Burkle) to marry the Princess.

Cymbeline banishes Posthumus, who goes to Rome. There, in a conversation with the dastardly Iachimo (Alex Limpaecher), he bets on his wife's fidelity. Iachimo heads to Britain to attempt to win the wager by seducing Imogen. He hides in a trunk in her bedroom, steals her bracelet and is able to convince the gullible Posthumus that Imogen has betrayed him. Posthumus engages his servant Pisanio (Scott Shimp) to kill Imogen, but Pisanio instead helps her to escape to the countryside of Wales disguised as a young boy "Fidele."

In Wales she encounters her long-lost brothers Guiderius (Thomas Dollar) and Arviragus (William Ellerbe), living in a cave under the care of Belarius (Edi Ibok), a nobleman unjustly banished many years before from the court of Cymbeline. As the action accelerates and the plot entangles still further, Guiderius beheads Cloten, who is dressed in Posthumus' clothes. Imogen, poisoned by the Queen, is presumed dead but revives and, eventually, in her disguise as Fidele, joins the Roman army as a page to the general Lucius (Curt Hillegas). Meanwhile Posthumus has joined the British army and fights heroically alongside Guiderius and Arviragus.

More complexity, absurdity, and plot twists abound in the long final scene – twenty-four reversals and recognitions by one editor's count – as Cymbeline is reunited with his sons and his daughter, all concealed identities are revealed, the doctor (Max Rosmarin) announces the fortuitous death of the Queen, a peace is achieved between Britain and Rome, and a venerable Soothsayer (Thomas P. Roche Jr.) solves an enigmatic prophecy to bring about final resolution. Mr. Stephens' commanding presence and raging Lear-like regality before he learns his lesson in the final act; Mr. Hilleagas' convincing authority in two different roles; and Professor Roche's sage textual exegesis as Philharmonus the Soothsayer lend a welcome air of maturity and gravitas to the otherwise undergraduate cast.

Ms. Miller, in perhaps the most demanding and certainly the most interesting, three-dimensional role (perhaps, as Harold Bloom suggests, Imogen deserves to have been in a better play), creates a dynamic, appealing character, though somewhat diminished on opening night by diction problems.

Mr. Burkle, Mr. Limpaecher and Ms. Harris, in the two-dimensional villain roles, deliver memorable moments, and will do well to enjoy their wickedness and dastardly deeds even more energetically in the upcoming performances.

Mr. Dollar and Mr. Ellerbe present a vibrant, heartwarming brotherly duo, and Mr. Ibok leads the rural contingent with poise and panache (though not always clarity of diction). Mr. Brown is focused and forceful in the difficult role of Posthumus, and Mr. Shimp and Mr. Rosmarin provide strong support here.

Tarryn Chun's unit set – a steep upstage ramp, stars hanging from above, a purple curtained cave on stage left, with lighting by Lauren Hayward and Rob Simmons – simply and effectively provides the necessary staging area for the diverse action taking place. Lauren Palmer's costume designs reflect the same pragmatic simplicity and could benefit from a bit more color and extravagance.

Mr. Peterson and his cohorts have taken on a formidable theatrical challenge here and have staged and performed this rambling, messy masterpiece with intelligence and skill. What this production could most benefit from is clarity, a bit more playfulness, and energy to complement, call attention to, and revel in the wild exuberance of Shakespeare's Cymbeline.

Cymbeline runs for one more weekend, Thursday through Saturday, March 31 through April 2, at 8 p.m. and a 2 p.m. matinee on April 2. For tickets, call (609) 258-1742 or order online at www.princeton.edu/utickets. For more information visit www.theatreintime.org.


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