Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Great Recapitulation

Hardman and Grant in Cymbeline.
Once you get to be my age, with decades of watching and pondering Shakespeare behind you, the whole canon can begin to seem like one very long play. And when I consider Cymbeline, I sometimes think the Bard himself might have begun to feel the same way.

For Cymbeline, written late in Shakespeare's career, is a strange enormity, and one that all but cries out for explanation. It's one of Shakespeare's longest plays, and certainly his most variegated - whenever I think of it, I'm reminded of Polonius's hilarious description of the players in Hamlet, who specialize in "tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited."

Cymbeline, I suppose, counts as "tragical-comical-historical pastoral" (unless it's "poem unlimited"). At bottom, it's a national foundation myth - it concerns a legendary war that separated Britain from Rome. But literally a dozen different plots and modes flower briefly within that frame - the play opens with an unequal marriage that seems a variant of the one in All's Well that Ends Well, but it soon morphs into a miniature Othello (with a villain named "Iachimo," or "Little Iago"), before transmuting itself into something akin to As You Like It, with a subplot borrowed from Romeo and Juliet. And this is before we even get to the tropes lifted from Twelfth Night, Comedy of Errors, and King Lear. It's hard, actually, to think of a play by Shakespeare that doesn't have an echo in Cymbeline (maybe Henry VI), which is why I sometimes call it "The Great Recapitulation."

But why a recapitulation at that stage of Shakespeare's career? Well, Cymbeline does stand at a key juncture in the canon - after the great tragedies, and the "problem plays," and just after the odd patchwork that is Pericles - the latter half of which is almost certainly by the Bard, the first half of which is almost certainly by somebody else. But that latter half - in which a daughter is restored to her father, and a family re-united - would prove the inspiration for Shakespeare's final period, the "romances," with their uniquely haunting combination of tragedy and comedy. The greatest of these, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, take two opposed tacks to the structural problem of a tragi-comic synthesis. Cymbeline, by way of contrast, is something of a pile-up; watching it, it's tempting to guess that, armed with a new motif that he felt could serve as the culmination of his life's work, Shakespeare's first impulse was to stitch it into a vast recapitulation of his entire oeuvre. In a way, with Cymbeline the Bard took a very, very deep breath before saying, "And now for something completely different."

The results are, I admit, sometimes somewhat bizarre. Cymbeline shape-shifts at will, and though there's a central character - Imogen - who ranks among Shakespeare's finest, almost everyone else feels like a minor variant of some other, earlier personage, and poor Imogen's adventures grow almost maddeningly convoluted and extravagant (Headless corpses! Roman invasions! Visits from Jupiter!). Still, I have seen Cymbeline work - and work superbly; but only once, and only when enormous resources, and brilliant talent, were thrown at it (in the great Robin Phillips's masterful production at Stratford in the mid-80's).

But the Actors' Shakespeare Project, which is presenting this enormity just through this weekend as part of its Winter Festival, is producing it behind a storefront in Davis Square, with only seven actors seemingly attired for yoga, and only an oriental rug for a set, and without even proper theatrical lighting (but with a background soundtrack of bass guitar pumped in from the bar next door). I'd like to report that somehow a miracle has taken place, and that against all odds ASP has produced a brilliant sketch of this epic text. But I'm afraid any reduction of Cymbeline would be impossible; its gnarly sprawl is central to it; you can't "sketch" it.

What we get instead is a kind of delicate burlesque of the play by a small troupe of funny, talented players - which works, off and on, particularly if you know the script already and are in a forgiving mood. If you don't, or are not, the whole thing may strike you as inexplicable. I'm an acquaintance of the director, Doug Lockwood, and he's a smart and funny guy - and an inspired Shakespearean clown. So I wasn't surprised to find a light, clowning mood assert itself - the villains were prissy or over-the-top, and we never thought for a moment that things might turn out badly for sweet, innocent Imogen. This isn't right for the play - the chief thematic feature of which is the slow emergence of love and order from Lear-like cruelty and chaos. But if you don't have the resources to do the play - well, it's better than nothing; and it seemed to me that for much of the time the audience was cajoled into a mood of slightly confused amusement.

As Imogen, Brooke Hardman was always energetic and appealing, but far too sturdy and modern for a fairy-tale heroine whose delicacy we should feel is often about to crack beneath the weight of the horrors she must endure.  But then miscasting is all but ASP's signature, isn't it - talented actors playing against type could almost be described as the troupe's artistic statement, its raison d'ĂȘtre.  Thus we watched as Marya Lowry did what she could (i.e., caricature) the play's evil queen, while the talented De'Lon Grant, though plausible as Imogen's hubby, made her cloddish suitor (and son to said evil queen) Cloten a bitchy hoot rather than any kind of crude threat (we felt throughout that Hardman's Imogen could take down mother and son in two seconds flat if she felt like it).  Meanwhile Neil McGarry seemed a bit lost as Iachimo (is petty malice so hard to play?), but Ken Baltin was a better Cymbeline than most, and a quite funny Philario.  Rounding out the (mis-) cast were two of Boston's best young rising stars, Danny Bryck and Risher Reddick, who did yeoman duty in a bevy of roles that didn't suit them at all (at one point they were even supposed to be twins!). The single intriguing feature of the miscasting was Lowry's turn as the cross-gendered "Belaria" - Lowry turned this Kent-like figure into a haunting version of the powerful, noble mother who always seems to be missing from Shakespeare.

And I have to admit that a good deal of the cast's antics charmed, even if they were consistently off-kilter. I don't know why Doug Lockwood wanted to take on Cymbeline, but he got through it in a way. (With the help of heavy cutting, I might add; he skipped Jupiter's appearance entirely, and did we hear "Hark, hark, the lark"? Maybe I couldn't hear it over the bass from next door.) The curious may find some fun in this production; others may find it cute, but feel that it leaves you clueless.

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