To mark its 20th anniversary this season, Seattle Shakespeare Company has plotted out an appealing mix of first-time undertakings alongside the familiar. Now on the boards is the company’s debut presentation of Cymbeline, the only one of the Bard’s four romances never previously attempted in Seattle Shakes’ two-decade history.
When artistic director Stephanie Shine queried how many in Friday’s opening-night audience had ever seen Cymbeline staged before, a large majority indicated that this was their first encounter as well.
The production, adapted and directed by Henry Woronicz, is billed as a “chamber” Cymbeline and uses role doublings to downsize the cast to a tight-knit ensemble of eight. But the compression also extends to Woronicz’s considerable abridgement, editing, and rearrangement of the sprawling script (completely uncut, it can run over four hours in performance). Woronicz, who helmed the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the early 1990s, first staged his chamber adaptation there in 1993.
In a pantomime he tacks on as a brief meta-prologue, Woronicz has the cast gather onstage — a bit like Hamlet’s troupe of players — and greet each other before they prepare to launch their performance. One of them slyly produces a key to open a large trunk center stage which contains their costumes and which will also function as an important prop in the play.
It’s a handy metaphor for the instant exchanges of identity — alternately concealed and revealed — and the transformations of mood and motive that Shakespeare requires his players to enact throughout the course of Cymbeline. These are only intensified by the multiple-role casting of this chamber version.
The production itself doesn’t unlock any startling new insights into the numerous dramaturgical enigmas Cymbeline poses for contemporary audiences. A convoluted tangle of interconnected stories, the play traces a pattern of estrangement, exile, and reconciliation that offers the archetypal reassurance of fairy-tales. What overlays all this, though, are bewildering shifts in tone — as if the catalogue of genres Polonius lists for Hamlet when he ticks off the acting troupe’s facility for “tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,” etc. were being stitched together into a single play.
Even the most straightforward attempt to recount Cymbeline’s labyrinthine plot easily veers toward unintended parody. Moments that hint at the tragic intensity of King Lear or Othello stand alongside others that would be at home in The Comedy of Errors, while the heroine, King Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen, is a cousin to the plucky cross-dressing characters in the mature comedies.
Is it even possible to find a plausible balance for the play’s fundamental instability of tone? Woronicz opts simply to embrace this variability and encourages the actors to focus on the sheer imaginative pleasure of Shakespeare’s theatrical storytelling. For example, the opening lines — a bit of exposition originally consigned to two minor observers — are divvied up among the cast, who are seen to set the story in motion. Just before intermission, they gather again to watch Imogen as she heads into the wild on her uncertain journey.
The design team deftly reinforces the narrative flexibility, anchoring the play in a minimalist but evocative atmosphere. Carol Wolfe Clay’s unit set of columns, plank walkways, and bare trees creates an illusion of expansiveness (a fascinating contrast with the claustrophobic design Seattle Shakes adopted for the deeply satisfying production of Hamlet that opened its season). Lighting (Rick Paulsen) and costumes (Pete Rush) are tastefully integrated, with matching color schemes that whisk us instantly back and forth within the play’s wide-ranging locales, from King Cymbeline’s palace to Rome to the Welsh wilderness. Brendan Patrick Hogan’s sound design mingles brooding synthesizer and ritualistic chimes (used as part of the set).
Seattle Shakes stalwart Connor Toms does double duty both as Imogen’s beloved, Posthumus, and as Cloten, the obnoxious would-be suitor she defiantly rejects. Toms makes an admirable transition from passionate, exiled lover to Cloten’s comically doltish swagger. He is actually less persuasive in conveying the different facets of the schizoid Posthumus, who turns to murderous rage against Imogen the moment he is duped into believing she has betrayed him.
This seems partly to result from Woronicz’s pared-down adaptation. It eliminates the miraculous apparition of Jupiter and other material that helps set the tone for the hero’s pivotal moment of repentance near the end. As Iachimo, who engineers Posthumus’s loss of faith in Imogen, Bradford Farwell plays his famous set-piece in the heroine’s bedchamber with a cold, almost dispassionate calculation that is effectively creepy.
While much of Imogen’s role involves reacting to what happens to her, Jennifer Lee Taylor avoids playing her as a victim and emphasizes her courage and spirit of defiance against the odds. If her modulation between moods seems sudden and erratic at times, it echoes Posthumus’s variability, and you get the distinct sense that Taylor’s Imogen is just as prone to believe she’s been betrayed by her exiled husband.
As Shakespeare’s titular king of Roman-era Britain, Larry Paulsen injects a notable layer of subtlety into the generally more straightforward, storybook approach Woronicz calls for. His body language brings out a subtext of self-doubt and confusion when he confronts his daughter and, toward the end, when he learns the true motives of his Queen, played by Jeanne Paulsen. (This production marks the first time the Seattle-based Paulsen couple has collaborated here.)
Jeanne Paulsen's asides as the conniving Queen/Imogen’s stepmother have a deliciously deadpan relish. Meanwhile, she anchors one of the main subplots as a gruffly Zen-like Belarius. It’s a delight to see the two characterizations side by side. This former courtier turned mountain man has abducted and raised Cymbeline’s son, who is engagingly performed by Ben McFadden. (Woronicz’s economy edits out the other son included in Shakespeare’s text.)
Alexander Samuels plays Pisanio, Posthumus’s loyal servant, with a mix of nervousness and self-preserving guile. David Goldstein neatly etches out distinct personalities as Cornelius, the court physician, and Caius Lucius, whose Roman forces unsuccessfully attempt to subdue the Britons. Despite the epic-historical framework Shakespeare sets up, though, Woronicz’s Cymbeline remains emphatically familial, and the real battles are the emotional ones.
When they finally get resolved in a lengthy chain of recognitions, there’s no attempt to downplay the denouement’s absurdity. In fact, Woronicz revels in the tongue-in-cheek, Saturday Night Live self-consciousness of it all by adding a twist of his own. George Bernard Shaw even found it necessary to rewrite the entire fifth act. But it’s theatrical versatility, not down-to-earth realism, that this Cymbeline celebrates.