We sometimes forget how much Shakespeare was a fantasist. The ghost in Hamlet, the witches and apparitions in Macbeth have become so familiar as to be normal. Even odd bits of “grand Guignol” style bloodletting—Gloucester’s eyes, anyone?—rarely meet with the shock we might otherwise experience if not somewhat inured by Shakespeare’s sublime reputation. If we think about it, we might recall that his plays were considered extremely indecorous by the leading lights of eras much less heteroclite in their tastes than ours. Thus one of the delights of a Romance like Cymbeline, in current production at the Yale School of Drama, is that it reminds us how bizarre and baroque the Bard can be. Because Cymbeline doesn’t get staged as often as the better-known plays, we can still be surprised by it. It’s a play with a sprawling cast that keeps us guessing about whose story this really is; it gives us lots of set-ups and exposition that seem to have subtitles saying “wait for it!” as it works out a wondrously interlinked plot with no real center; and it’s a play with moments of either comic or icky—or both—melodrama, like Imogen waking from another one of those Juliet-death-trance potions to find herself, she believes, beside the corpse of her love, Posthumus, only the body is headless, so how’s a girl to be sure? Its very oddity makes it quite a good play for YSD as it presents many instances for the team, led by third-year director Louisa Proske, to create effects as erratic as the play itself.
Start with the visually arresting costumes by Nikki Delhomme: rich and classy for the court figures; they situate the characters in some old European film of easy elegance, like Rules of the Game, for instance, and that’s not a bad comparison for the levels of society we encounter in this play; for there are also the bumpkins (who are really royalty), shirtless and perpetually wrassling, and there’s Imogen looking as though she’s imprisoned by her ballooning skirts—until she dons a traveling-coat, looking like Helena Bonham-Carter in A Room with a View setting off on an adventure. There are also soldiers about who look sort of WWI era, and there’s the sumptuous jacket of the foolish fop Cloten that could grace Liberace, and, finally, our romantic hero Posthumus’ simple man threads—think Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant when he really has to play self-effacing; and don’t forget the scene in a sauna where the guys—lots of prime male flesh on view in this show—hang about in towels, talk women, make a wager on Iachimo seducing Imogen.
Light (Solomon Weisbard) and sound (Palmer Hefferan and Michaël Attias) are also very busy in this production. Set on the backstage at the University Theater (Meredith B. Ries, scenic design) the trappings of theatrical spectacle are all about us—and they become a part of the play when the lights scaffolds descend to stage level for lighting effects and to create visual chaos during the war scene. There are also some great uses of music and sound—sometimes a schmaltzy tune will start up, or little tinkling bells make us feel we’re not quite in the normal world, or unnerving crescendoes of drums and metallic sounds add eerieness and drama. The play has a lot to get through and in lieu of the usual Shakespearean pleasures—great soul-searching soliloquies, highly romantic badinage, verbal jousts, clownish antics—has to find its magic where it can. As, for instance, having a first grader (Rachel Miller) play the part of Jupiter, in the totally wigged-out deus ex machina moment that almost tips into Disney. For macabre contrast, there’s that headless corpse rising feet first into the vault.
In the cast, special mention: Lucas Dixon as the giddy Cloten, a true sop who gets to strut and fret in fine style; Brian Wiles as the cunning Iachimo—his glittering eyes and smug look when tricking Posthumus into believing he seduced Imogen are truly villainous; Miriam A. Hyman, all dressed-up up for evil and deliciously duplicitous as The Queen; Tim Brown, as attendant Cornelius, who gets a great laugh when clarifying a bit of business in the endless denoument; Michael Place as a fussily priggish Pisanio; Robert Grant as the dour and limping Cymbeline, doomed to be a bit clueless when so much is going on when he’s not around; Joshua Bermudez as agile Guiderius, who shrugs off decapitating Cloten as easily as the play does; as the lovers who prove true Adina Verson (Imogen) and Fisher Neal (Posthumus) declaim the super-declamatory verse—there are lots of “you gods!” moments—but provide here and there more subtle touches: Verson taking aim with her needle at Posthumus’s ship fading on the horizon; Neal as a spotlighted captive looking on death as proper justice.
The play finishes up with a recognition scene to end all recognition scenes—here it has the feel of the Shakespearean equivalent of the Marx Brothers’ shipboard cabin scene in A Night at the Opera: “I had a feeling you were going to show up.” All’s well that ends well, and this Cymbeline certainly does.
William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline Directed by Louisa Proske Yale School of Drama
December 10 to 16, 2011