Perhaps more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, Cymbeline has a muddled reputation. Is it a tragedy, as it was considered initially, or a romance, as more modern categorizations have it? Is its sprawling, somewhat convoluted plot adventurous or instead absurd? Are its narrative tropes and stylistic flourishes fanciful or just sloppy? Is it a fascinating experiment in the fusion of themes and forms, presaging the Bard’s career-capping masterpiece The Tempest? Or is it simply a looser, lesser effort from a writer gliding toward retirement?
Perhaps a more pertinent question is this: Is the play the thing, or is the production?
Certainly Cymbeline can be rendered with such clarity and verve, as director Bill Rauch did in the 2013 Oregon Shakespeare Festival staging, that its innate virtues shine through and its flaws are turned instead into charming quirks. It can be adapted liberally, as Portland Center Stage’s Chris Coleman did the previous year in Shakespeare’s Amazing Cymbeline, which filtered the tale through the bluesy emotional hues of a piano-playing narrator.
Or it can get a treatment like the one from the little Portland company Anon It Moves and director Kira Atwood-Youngstrom. On the boards at El Centro Milagro through Aug. 8, this version takes a few liberties but winds up upholding the play’s general reputation: That is to say, it’s by turns endearing and aggravating, and overall a bit of a high-minded mess.
Atwood-Youngstrom’s conceptual take, if you can call it that, is to set the tale in a fictive future, one in which Romans and Celts have yet to be swept aside as political entities. How this twist might illuminate any of Shakespeare’s themes isn’t too clear, but it gives her a justification, she says in her program note, to change a handful of male characters into females (which, of course, she might have done all the same). She also wedges in some undistinguished electro-pop songs to showcase the big, warm voices of Sarah Yeakel and Julianna Wheeler.
These changes neither add nor detract much in terms of the narrative, but seem to be the entry points for some unwelcome distractions, such as costumes that make the Roman characters look like they’ve wandered in from a community-theater production of Starlight Express. Maybe there’s also meant to be some connection between the futurism and the lone primary scenic device, a high wall or tower fragment from atop which Yeakel’s character (a vaguely supernatural presence called the Diva) and a musician/sound designer oversee all the action. The Diva appears to take the place of a few ghostly apparitions that make a cameo in the original, and might also be a nod to the themes of providence that course through the tale. But the character seems to be here mostly as a sort of melodic frosting that clashes with the dramatic cake.
Gender-switching is a common Anon It Moves move, and an admirable, often useful one. Here the main changes are to Posthumus Leonatas, the husband – now wife – of King Cymbeline’s daughter Innogen, and to Iachimo, an arrogant, scheming Roman who wagers with Posthumus over Innogen’s fidelity. Making both into women is a neutral move – it doesn’t change the contrast of their characteristics or social standings.
But the virtue vs. vice battle that plays out sneakily between the two is in many ways the crux of the play, and it is sapped of its requisite tension here by the wooden, energy-thwarting performances of Wheeler as Iachimo and Alwynn Accuardi as Posthumus. The richness of personality that Wheeler effects in her singing is entirely absent in dialogue, where Iachimo’s brashness needs to be rounded out with wit and charisma. Meanwhile, it’s hard to invest in Posthumus’ plight of separation from Innogen if we see no spark between them; hard to understand the righteous fervor of his/her jealousy if we can’t see the honor and credulity that Iachimo has played upon.
But all is not lost on the performance front. Jahnavi Alyssa is a marvelous Innogen, as fierce in her loyalties as she is luminous in her love. Paige Jones provides a sly incisiveness as the conniving Queen, and Steve Vanderzee makes her cloddish son Cloten engagingly despicable. Best of all is Tony Green who, as the titular Celtic king, gives the show its big, emotionally framing moments, with fire-breathing anger early on when he sets trouble in motion by banishing Posthumus, then with affecting grief followed by infectious joy at the conclusion, when conflicts and mysteries resolve into reconciliations. And, naturally, tragedy transforms into romance.