We have 37 plays attributed to William Shakespeare. Most educated Americans could easily rattle off at least seven titles, and most would recognize several more, but very few woud be familiar with the rarely-produced Cymbeline. It is a lesser work by a writer of genius, somewhat predictable, somewhat confusing, and, to be blunt, somewhat dull. Still, it is Shakespeare and even at his least Shakespearean, that means it contains some beautiful poetry, deep themes, lifelike characters, humor, and moments of sublimity. And any Shakespeare company worth its salt will sooner or later stage every one of the plays, including Cymbeline. Well, Marin Shakespeare Company is worth its salt and pepper too and plenty of other seasonings so it’s no surprise to see them take this on.
And a good thing, too.
The great Shakespearean critic Harold Bloom (and other critics as well) has suggested that Cymbeline (like another “problem” play, Titus Andronicus) is a parody, rather than a serious play, and for all its violence and evil machinations, should be played for laughs. Themes of mortality, disappointed love, evil ambition, loss of reputation, hope and disappointment, sobriety and drunkenness, which Shakespeare treats elsewhere with extraordinary insight, empathy and compassion are here a source of fun, overplayed to the point of ridiculous exaggeration until we are moved to laugh and cry out, “lighten up, Willy!”
Director Robert Currier seems to have taken this viewpoint to heart, and he has coached his actors to deliver exaggerated, mugging, over the top, melodramatically comic performances that make this dullest of Shakespeare’s plays a laugh riot. To make sure we get the point, costumer Tammy Berlin has dressed them clownishly, including one of the most ridiculous wigs this side of drag heaven. To lighten things up further, Billie Cox has provided a clever, well composed series of songs that clarify obscure plot points, help us to understand the characters, and generally entertain.
It all adds up to a great deal of fun. Lovers of Shakespeare who are familiar with his many repeated themes and stylistic tropes will delight in the parody. Others will simply enjoy the over-the-top delight of seeing highly-trained and skilled Shakespearean actors make merciless fun of Shakespeare.
Purists may conclude that Director Currier has twisted and pulled on this play like it were salt water taffy or silly putty, with a result that is hardly Shakespearean. And they are probably right. But they couldn’t convince me that the result isn’t an improvement on the original, and damned good fun.
“Cymbeline” plays at the Forest Meadow Amphitheatre on the campus of Dominican University of California in San Rafael through July 26. For further information, click here.
“Cymbeline” by William Shakespeare, with original music and lyrics by Billie Cox. Director: Robert Currier. Set: Jackson Currier. Costumes: Tammy Berlin.
Cymbeline: Paul Abbott. Queen: Lee Fitzpatrick. Imogen: Stella Heath. Posthumus/Cloten: Tommy Gorrebeeck. Iachimo: Davern Wright. Cornelius: Debi Durst. Lucius: Glen Havlan. Pisanio: Jed Pisario. First Gentleman: Timothy Huls. Second Gentleman: Rory Keane. Guiderius: Zach Purdy. Avirigus: Patrick St. John. Violinist & Ensemble: Gabriela Schneider.
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