After you see “Shakespeare’s Amazing Cymbeline” at Portland Center Stage (and why wouldn’t you, if you have the means?), don’t bother pulling down that well-thumbed edition of The Oxford Shakespeare from the shelves to find out whether the original has a piano player in it. I already looked. It doesn’t.
But maybe it should. A narrator to keep all of the weird plot twists and characters straight isn’t a bad idea at all, and Chris Coleman’s old piano man, played by Michael G. Keck in this production, comes in handy when we start to lose track of the particulars and the point. Now, I might wish he was playing honky-tonk boogie woogie and blues instead of the melancholy chords he settled upon, but the guidance was appreciated.
Shakespeare composed “Cymbeline” toward the end of his writing days (though he wasn’t an OLD man when he wrote it — several years after the death of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford had passed on to his eternal reward, by the way, but pace Oxfordians, this isn’t the place). And one way to look at it is as a scramble of various of his other plays.
Let’s see: “King Lear,” of course, which Coleman’s piano player references (a king out of control, stupidly punishing his loving daughter). “Romeo and Juliet” (potions that mimic death, a graveyard scene in which the heroine wakes next to her dead lover — or seems to), “As You Like It” (for its sylvan settings and corrupt court), “Othello” (an evil deceiver, some fake evidence), “Macbeth” (an ambitious wife who goes mad) and really we’re just getting started. You want improbable plot devices? This is an encyclopedia of them.
So yes, a narrator (all of whose lines are invented by Coleman) isn’t such a bad thing, because “Cymbeline” is a crazy play.
But let’s get this out of the way: “Cymbeline” is a crazy play, but it is not a stupid play. That statement instantly puts us at odds with the formidable Samuel Johnson, who thought otherwise.
“This play has many just sentiments, some natural dialogues, and some pleasing scenes, but they are obtained at the expense of much incongruity. To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.”
Johnson, a man of prodigious scholarship and conservative leanings, possibly the greatest of all English literary men, was a naturalist when it came to literature. He believed in believability, plain talk and clarity. These two sentences are the sum of his gloss on “Cymbeline” in his famous edition of Shakespeare’s work, and they pop up whenever critics discuss the play along with the condemnation of George Bernard Shaw (also a naturalist) a century and a half or so later.
But even in this dismissal, the cunning contemporary director or critic can find a crack to crowbar an opening large enough for contemporary theater to pass through: “too gross for aggravation.” Doctor Johnson, maybe we are not supposed to take “Cymbeline” seriously. Shakespeare was having a bit of fun with his nutty subplots and deformed stereotypes. Is Iachimo a noble Roman soldier-at-arms or a conniving pipsqueak of a Renaissance Italian gigolo? Why choose? Shakespeare swings both ways. And good luck pinning down the age of Arviragus. Shakespeare doesn’t seem to care enough to bother keeping it straight.
Just for the record, Arviragus is one of the two sons of King Cymbeline kidnapped by a noble but banished courtier when they were toddlers and spirited off to the wilds of Wales where they have become skilled hunters and country bumpkins, hermits really. Do you think Shakespeare would dare twist the plot enough to have them stumble upon their sister, Imogen, possibly the very sweetest of Shakespearean heroines, dressed as a young man to avoid… well, I’m not sure exactly. It seemed to make sense at the time. Well, yes, if a little coincidence is good, a lot of coincidence is better to Shakespeare and the piano player, who stands in for him.
Do you really want a recap of the plot? Very quickly? OK. Cymbeline’s married to an evil woman, known only as the Queen (even in the original!), who hopes to put her “clotpoll” (blockhead) son Cloten (get it?) on the throne by marrying him to Cymbeline’s only heir, fair and beautiful Imogen. Imogen’s secretly married Posthumous, an upstanding but estate-less ward of the king. Cymbelline banishes him, and Imogen grieves. Posthumous goes to Italy and makes a knuckleheaded bet with the lascivious and villainous Iachimo that his sweet wife would never betray him, and when Iachimo manages to pull off a “proof” of his conquest of the lady, Posthumous orders his servant to kill his cheating wife.
Meanwhile, “back in Britain,” as the piano player says, the kingdom prepares for war with Rome, and Imogen rushes off to Wales (part of Posthumous’s plot to kill her), but the servant can’t do the deed. Hey, Imogen is the sweetest heroine in Shakespeare… Really, do I need to go on? If you go, the piano player is going to make sure you understand the ins and outs of the plot, I promise.
Michael G. Keck is the piano player. How many other actors does Coleman use in his adaptation, do you think? Five. Kelley Curran plays the sweet, resilient and forgiving Imogen. That leaves Danny Wolohan, Scott Coopwood, Ryan McCarthy and John San Nicolas to play everyone else. It works quite smoothly, actually, partly because none of the characters, save Imogen, makes a lick of naturalistic sense. The actors have fun with their characters, concentrate on making Shakespeare’s sentences work and enjoy a bit of stage hijinks now and then. The aggressive wigging and costume changes ensure that you don’t get lost (along with Keck).
The winners in the shuffle of characters were San Nicolas, who gets the delicious evil duo of the Queen and Iachimo, and McCarthy, pulling the Cloten/Poshumous double, meaning he gets to play the dimmest peacock in Britain and the most self-righteous Dudley Do-Right. But Coopwood is always welcome (the voice, the diction!) and Wolohan gets the fun of the Sasquatch-like, noble-born rube Guiderius. And at some later time after the play ends, he’ll get to be king!
I’m sure some of Coleman’s trimming of the script involved the stage pragmatics of the character switches (and the hallways outside the Ellen Bye Studio theater must have been busy with the rigging of the wigs and the fitting of the costumes, as the actors made for different entrance points, some through the audience — careful, those of you sitting on the aisle).
Yes, script-trimming. Quite a bit, actually, including the bizarre spectacle of a visitation by Jupiter, the god, though I heard no one on opening night crying out, “Where’s Jupiter?”, after realizing this production had no thunderbolts whatsoever.
In case you are wondering, here’s the key bit of what he says: “Whom best I love, I cross, to make my gift,/The more delayed, delighted. Be content./Your low-laid son our godhead will uplift.”
Well, even Shakespeare had his bad days. But maybe not, not if you think he intended to be “bad” in the way that “bad” can be “funny.”
Different literary critics have different opinions about this, as I’ve suggested. A newspaper critics will suggest that by this time in his life, Shakespeare was “fatigued” or maybe even lazy. Critics are impertinent and intemperate in this way. Anyway, he wasn’t paying much attention, they say. This argument is partially derailed by “Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest,” in my opinion, though neither has the intensity of the interiors or poetry of Shakespeare’s greatest work.
Another popular line is that Shakespeare’s final period was experimental (the great Marjorie Garber, for example: “I love this play. I think this play is completely fabulous”), and so “Cymbeline” is interesting for his mash-ups and plot hallucinations. This is Shakespeare; this is Shakespeare on drugs. Not successful, necessarily, but experimental. “Cymbeline,” in this view, would be Ken Kesey’s favorite Shakespeare play, unless maybe he was a “Titus Andronicus” man. (Does anyone out there actually know? Please tell us, if you do!)
Coleman doesn’t construct the LSD version of “Cymbeline.” His piano player is old. Yes, he’s a little tired; more importantly he has his regrets. Maybe he regrets killing off Juliet, for example. That was a difficult bit of business to swallow. And it’s quite obvious he regrets what he’s done to Cordelia in “Lear,” not to mention what happens to Lear himself. At the end of the play, Cymbeline, standing in for Lear, reconciles with his three children, and Imogen (and her shadows Cordelia and Juliet) is alive and well and happy.
Both Coleman and Shakespeare (nearly) end this way: “Pardon’s the word for all,” spoken by Cymbeline, standing in for the piano player, standing in for Shakespeare. And I liked the way Coleman ends it: With Imogen looking out at us one last time, before exiting the stage.
This is an entirely plausible take on the play, I suppose — Shakespeare making things right, forgiving and asking for forgiveness, after he’s had his spot of fun.
And this would be a fine time, dear reader, for you to take a powder. Though I’ve got a few more things to say about the Center Stage production, I’m mostly done with it. But I’m not quite done with “Cymbeline.”
I’d like to propose an alternative approach to it, using the piano player device but to an entirely different purpose. And then, after the most threadbare of transitions, I’d like to bring up my only previous live encounter with “Cymbeline,” just to see if it tells us anything at all. Because it was wonderful. Or so I thought in 1993.
Instead of a tired, elderly man attempting to make some amends after blundering into some strange plot rabbit holes, let’s imagine our piano player/Shakespeare a little differently. The Elizabethan theater has been replaced by the Jacobean, as James I has followed Elizabeth on the English throne, and Shakespeare’s company has made the transition: His company was made the King’s Men, right after James’ coronation. He’s even done some cultural propping of the new Monarch, with “Macbeth.”
But the tenor of the times has changed: Theater has gone Hollywood. It’s drenched in blood and revenge and special effects. Those careful inner monologues that Shakespeare specialized in? The subtle assessments of the human heart and descriptions of human behavior? No one’s doing that stuff anymore. No one. It’s all blood and bawdy jokes. Like Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi,” which Joseph Fisher has just re-written for Artists Repertory Theatre to good effect.
Shakespeare as he sits down to compose “Cymbeline” is in his mid-40s, and he’s trying to find something that will work, for his audiences primarily, but maybe for himself, too. And maybe he’s a little angry about it all, this turn by the culture, the success of these silly plays.
That gets us to Harold Bloom, the famous Yale professor, and his “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,” which was a New York Times bestseller back in the day (1998).
Bloom, who never backs away from imagining what was in Shakespeare’s head, summarizes “Cymbeline” this way:
“Everything about “Cymbeline” is madly problematical, as Shakespeare, in a willful mood evidently intended. Iachimo and Cloten are comic villains, Posthumous is a husbandly dolt, and Cymbeline is thickheaded enough to deserve his tiresomely wicked Queen. Imogen ought to be in a play worthier of her aesthetic dignity, but Shakespeare seems too troubled to give her the context she deserves…”
Shakespeare has created a sublime heroine and surrounded her with grotesquerie. Even Posthumous, who is impossible to like by the end of the play, although Coleman doesn’t dwell on his shortcomings, trimming some lines and keeping the subject from coming up with the piano player, a parody of a hero.
Bloom pushes this further, though. “Cymbeline” is self-parody, he says, Shakespeare running roughshod over all of his great moments on the stage. Remember all of those references we cited earlier? The “Cymbeline” version is a corruption of those great plays, a moustache drawn on the Mona Lisa, Shakespeare incinerating his Greatest Hits.
Why, Bloom asks. Several times. It’s not a rhetorical question. Bloom is looking for the answer. He says “authorial self-parody is a defense,” but he doesn’t say from what. Later, he offers a philosophical explanation for Shakespeare’s self-loathing: That he believes that his life isn’t his own, that it’s lived for him, and the “desperate best” he can hope for is to accept what happens as if he himself performed it, “If but for some ironic sympathy with ourselves.” And then the clincher: “It is another of those uncanny recognitions in which Shakespeare is already beyond Nietzsche.” Finally, he can only say that “Cymbeline” is a symptom of Shakespeare’s “sickness of spirit.”
So, maybe you’ve guessed where I’m going with this. Let’s put Bloom’s bitter Shakespeare at that piano, and ask HIM to describe, comment, add points of emphasis. “You wanted Juliet to live? OK, but she’s going to kiss a headless Romeo, who isn’t really Romeo at all, but someone she despises.” “Instead of killing the villain Iachimo, I think I’ll let him off scot-free, and you know that whole Roman invasion thing, I’m going to have Cymbeline win the war and then agree to pay the tribute that he was fighting against in the first place.” Which as Bloom says, reduces much of the play to “pure idiocy.”
In short: “If you want titillation, I’ll give it to you, just in the most debased form.”
What would that do to “Cymbeline”? Maybe it would invite us (as the co-directors) to make the characters, outside of Imogen, yet more grotesque and yet more unbearably “light,” in the sense of inhumanly weightless. They are all clowns, except for Imogen, and her punishment is to be stuck in this funhouse world. Or maybe they are puppets, as Bloom, quoting Posthumous, suggests, and we are in the middle of a Punch and Judy show. A visit from doggerel spitting Jupiter? Why, that would fit right in.
OK, I didn’t say it would sell any tickets.
One production of “Cymbeline” that did (and there’s your transition, as promised) was the one Henry Woronicz directed at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1993. As I recall it was the very first Shakespeare play staged in the festival’s Black Swan theater, the little black box the company used for its more experimental plays, before it was replaced by the larger, more technically advanced New Theatre.
At the time, I thought that Woronicz had created a production perfectly adapted to its place, Ashland — alternative, imaginative, with limited technical means, maybe, but with a pure heart and the best of intentions.
He held the cast to eight, and he said he gave the actors maximum freedom to create their characters. What resulted was not grotesque at all. It was visually beautifully, full of memorable images, and it was sensual as it could be. I don’t remember being particularly upset with Posthumous, but I do remember Cindy Basco as Imogen dancing on her toes along the perimeter of the stage-in-the-round, a physical manifestation of an inner state of grace.
The scene in which Iachimo, hiding in a trunk, emerges into Imogen’s bedchamber to gather the evidence he’ll need to win his wager with Posthumous that he’s had his way with Imogen was one I wrote about at length:
“Imogen (Cindy Basco), daughter of the king, sleeps restlessly, dreaming of her banished husband, Posthumus Leonatus (Don Burroughs). While she twists beneath a long silken cloth, the hungry, cynical Iachimo (John Pribyl) emerges from his hiding place in her bedchamber.
He swoons at her beauty, steals a kiss as he straddles her, inches above her body. “How bravely thou becomest thy bed! Fresh lily!/And whiter than the sheets! That I might touch/But kiss; one kiss! — Rubies unparagoned,/How dearly they do’t!”
Imogen, asleep, grasps him, calls the name of her husband, subsides. Then Iachimo wanders around the room (it’s imaginary but he describes it in detail — alert, it seems, to every atom). He carefully slips the bracelet from her slender arm, then ducks under the sheet at Imogen’s feet to find the intimate personal detail that will win his unsavory wager with Leonatus: the mole under Imogen’s breast. This research intoxicates him, nearly drives him crazy, and the sheet billows with his inner tumult.
Two scenes later, Basco as Imogen shows a more overtly sensual side. The scene begins as Iachimo “proves” to Leonatus that he has successfully bedded Imogen. He describes her bedroom, shows him the bracelet, then describes the hidden mole. Leonatus, inflamed, hallucinates in his jealous fever. Suddenly, we see what Leonatus sees: Imogen, lolling sultrily against Iachimo’s body, stares at Leonatus. Her arms ivy themselves around Iachimo’s as she writhes, erotically Cleopatran, in front of her husband.”
That was a lot of the old me. But maybe you get the idea. I liked it. And what was the point of that “Cymbeline”? It wasn’t to reconcile the older Shakespeare to his previous life nor to watch in horror as a great artist shreds his own creations. I didn’t think it had to do with anything particular in “Cymbeline” at all.
Here’s what I wrote: “Beneath the images, though, something greater is at stake. It’s almost as though Woronicz and the cast have created a separate community, where movement, rhythm, music and traditional storytelling are the crucial acting tools.” The production is the thing, not the play; the shared creation, not the intent of the playwright or rather, what we misunderstand of the intent of the playwright.
There’s something Utopian about this, though an improvisational Utopia, not a planned one, because those never turn out to be Utopias at all.
Ultimately, I was disappointed. The production ended, and I never saw anything like it again during Woronicz’s short reign as artistic director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And frankly, not since. The plays at the festival have participated in other conversations, bigger conversations, sometimes profoundly, but not the conversation of the little Utopian village in which the festival is set.
If we use that as a measure, then we bring Coleman’s message of reconciliation in his “Cymbeline” to our own place and time, his theater of limited means, his enjoyment of the buffoonery of the characters and the loveliness of Imogen, his attempt to make sense of something that in some ways defies sense. Is this what we need? Does this fit who we are? Has he constructed a world we want to be part of — not a play, but an entire world?
Is there no end to our desire? Because no production does that completely and for everyone, does it? But we keep going back to the theater, because partial success is important to us, too.
For me, for now, Coleman’s “Cymbeline” is a lot more than a partial success — it’s as though he’s throwing a lifeline to Shakespeare, and perhaps hoping for some reconciliation in our own time, when the two great houses of our Verona are at war, Montague and Capulet, red and blue.
At my own most Utopian, I like to think that our own role here in Portland is to send out little messages to the rest of the universe, fragments that can be decoded as “hope,” “creativity,” “reconciliation,” “fairness.” And if I’m not careful here, I’m going to end up in an episode of “Portlandia,” so absurd does this sound, even as I type it. Because so often, I’m that bitter man at the piano, ranting and raving.
Dear Bill, if you look, you’ll find the answer, even in your most dyspeptic play. But you may have to look pretty hard. Love, Chris