Monday, April 9, 2012

Michael5000 v. Shakespeare: Cymbeline (Portland Center Stage, 2012)

Me and Mrs.5000 got to go to a fairly big-league production (by Beaver State standards) of Cymbeline!  Thanks to highly virtuous occasional blogfollower gl., who slipped us the half-price deal.

The Play: Cymbeline
Directed by:  Chris Coleman, adapted as Shakespeare's Amazing Cymbeline.  Portland Center Stage.

When I talked about the text of Cymbeline last autumn, I stressed the bizarrely convoluted plot:
The action of Cymbeline is something of a Rube Goldberg machine in which a number of very common plot elements are all superimposed on top of each other, creating a perfect storm of many, many unlikely misunderstandings and wacky complications until all is put right in a deluge of last-act revelations.
What was most interesting to me in the Portland Center Stage production, though, was how little stress this Goldbergesque aspect of the play was given.  Instead, Cymbeline was given a straight, non-ironic reading that quite tamed the ludicrous aspects of its plot.  This was done, moreover, without removing a single scene, so far as I could remember.  But, it wasn’t done without adding a little something.

Genre & Setting: The production was in the round, with a minimal set that sufficed for castle, chamber, and countryside alike.  To one side was a piano.

The Gist/Adaptation: The first and last character we see in this Cymbeline is a piano player.  He provides quite a bit of soundtrack music, but he is also a one-man Greek chorus.  He has a lot of lines.  Much of what he says is a sort of critical analysis of the play – he talks a lot, for instance, about how the struggle over succession dramatized in the play may reflect the political uncertainties of post-Elizabethan England.  He also recaps many of the scenes, just in case we didn’t catch what happened.  And, rather charmingly, he sometimes takes a few lines of a minor character, moving briefly from the commentator to participant without leaving his piano stool.  This is a nice bit of interweaving, but also makes it so that events can proceed while the actors are frantically changing clothes offstage.

For the other singular aspect of this production is that it was a six-person show.  After the piano player and lovely Imogen, who gets to stay herself all the way through, that leaves only four dudes to take on all of the other roles in this sprawling script.  They had to change costumes a lot – more than fifty times, according to a blurb I heard on the radio.  It was a fun gesture, I thought, that at the end of the play the actors came out for their bows and were then joined by three tired-looking costume assistants.

Imogen (Kelley Curran) is troubled by another
intemperate decision made by her dad,
King Cymbeline (Scott Coopwood)
Pros: As a nice night at the theater, Shakespeare’s Amazing Cymbeline was superb.  The piano player was urbane and charming, and the acting was pretty impeccable all around.  Cymbeline the King was Lear-like in his blustering ineptitude, but learned his lesson in time; Imogen was rendered as a well-rounded girl next door with a good head on her shoulders; Posthumous was given enough initial arrogance to make it believable that he could make his ridiculous bet and enough decency that he could learn from his mistakes; Clotten was played wittily as a comic buffoon and the rustic princes-in-exile as good-natured knuckleheads; the Queen, played in drag, was not comic-evil but a real person: burnt out, cynical, bitter, and petty.  The characters all seemed more human than you might have thought possible from reading the script, and there was the additional pleasure of trying to figure out which of the four wild-card actors was playing each part and which characters were overlapping.  The plot and language would have been completely transparent to the rawest Shakespeare newb.

Cons: For the grouchy amateur Shakespeare critic, the night was not without its complaints.  These mostly had to do with the part written for the piano player.  This is perhaps not a big surprise; if you are going to weave your own text together with Shakespeare’s, you better be on the top of your game.  Director and adapter Chris Coleman’s writing didn’t quite meet the challenge.  The piano player's lines are somewhat repetitive, for one thing.  He also spends a little too much time telling us what just happened; giving people a little guidance through a complicated play was a good idea, but at times it felt like we were being read the Cliff Notes.

These were minor problems.  The larger problem is that the piano player is continually pointing out how deeply this play was affected by events in Shakespeare’s life, and comparing it with plays that were written x number of years earlier.  OK.  Repeat after me, Mr. Coleman: We know nothing meaningful about Shakespeare’s life.  Nothing.  The more you read about Shakespeare, the more clear this one central fact should be.  And even the simple chronology of the plays, although there are plenty of “no earlier thens” and “no later thens,” is deeply conjectural.  It’s all very fine to buy into an academic theory about what Shakespeare’s life might have been like, and what might have been going on in his affairs when he wrote a given play, but when you present your ideas as facts you are misleading people who don’t know better, and making yourself and your actor look silly to people who do.

All the more credit, then, to the man behind the piano, Michael G. Keck.  A composer rather than an actor by trade, Keck nailed the role, selling even the clunkiest lines of his part with genial aplomb.  When his job was to state the obvious about what had just happened onstage, he did it without talking down to the audience; when his job was to talk about how the play reflected events in Shakespeare’s love life, he at least managed to make it all sound reasonably hypothetical.  He was an impressive master of ceremonies.

Prognosis: I’ve written more about my quibbles, because they are in my area of interest.  However, I want to emphasize that Shakespeare’s Amazing Cymbeline was a lot of fun and a great night out on the town.  I would highly recommend it to all of you here in the City of Roses, if not for the fact that yesterday was the last night of the run.

1 comment:

gl. said...

awesome! thanks for letting me live vicariously through your attendance! i can see how the piano player would make or break that production.

instead of cymbeline i went to see kidd pivot's "dark matters" (and it was fantastic).