T. A. Taylor as Cymbeline and Joanna Schellenberg as Imogen
For the first time in its history, Shakespeare Dallas is presenting Cymbeline, one of William Shakespeare’s plays that’s rarely produced. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says there are good reasons for that. But there are also reasons people occasionally revive this example of a ‘late romance.’
- The Dallas Morning News review
- The FrontRow review
- KERA radio review:
- Expanded online review:
If it’s known at all, Cymbeline is famous for its lengthy scene of last-minute revelations and plot twists. A court doctor informs Cymbeline, the good king of Britain, that his wife, the queen, is dead — even horribly dead. The queen died raving and revealed that she never loved Cymbeline.
In fact, she planned to poison him and put her son Cloten on the throne.
Oh, and she also hated her step-daughter Imogen. And she hoped to murder her, too.
As Cymbeline, actor T. A. Taylor then gets to deliver one of Shakespeare’s funniest straight-man questions. The king sees the doctor is still waiting expectantly, so — good Lord — the king asks, “Is there more???”
In Cymbeline, there’s always more. It’s Shakespeare’s most plot-stuffed play. He was responding to a courtly fad at the time for complicated, fantastical Italian fables. So the play’s storyline is almost impossible to summarize. Let’s try: The queen wants step-daughter Imogen dead because she won’t marry her son Cloten and let Cloten gain the crown. The king himself isn’t fond of Imogen’s new husband Posthumous, so Posthumous gets banished to Rome. There, he bets with Iachimo that Iachimo can’t seduce the always faithful Imogen. Iachimo fails but then he cheats. Which causes no end of doubts and recriminations and attempted poisonings.
And then the Roman Empire strikes back.
Some of Shakespeare’s later, fanciful romances like The Winter’s Tale can be magical when handled right. But Cymbeline is a tough hodge-podge to crack. It’s not just the shifts in locale and tone and the belief-defying stage bits with the mistaken identity of a headless corpse — although these can be fun. But to indicate just how odd Cymbeline is simply to watch: It’s Shakespeare’s only play with ancient Romans battling Elizabethans as well as medieval mountain men from Wales dressed up like Robin Hood. It’s that odd. (A tip of the green forest cap, by the way, to Claudia Stephens’ costume designs.)
So many gold-leaf kudos to Shakespeare Dallas for tackling this notoriously difficult romance, a play far less popular than the company’s usual summer fare of Midsummer-Much Ado-Merry Wives-Twelfth-Errors-Shrew-Romeo-Tempest. And it must be said that director Rene Moreno has bravely faced the hodge-podge straight-on.
Productions can succeed by stylizing the different elements, making them all part of a grand Freudian fairy tale with the wicked step-mother, the magic poisons and, golly yes, that last-minute divine intervention from the god Jupiter. But here, the hodge-podge wins. The show never coheres into any real emotional or aesthetic impact.
Moreno is certainly not helped by J. J. Wickham’s unattractive set (left — the only time it looks good is when it’s dark and the set glows). Shakespeare Dallas seems to have the notion that all its sets must have an upper level to make them more impressive, the whole set-up at Samuell-Grand being too flat as it is. Or maybe the company simply can’t afford to remove the structure, so it persists. OK, fine, but this upper level always seems designed to be either wretchedly confining for the actors to play on or wretchedly difficult to reach, particularly with the company’s repeated use of a tight spiral staircase, as is the case here, even though it’s not really employed for impressive swordfight sequences or glide-down or pop-up entrances. A tight spiral staircase ranks as the worst possible conveyance for anyone in Elizabethan skirts and doublets, Roman armor and capes, servants carrying stuff, Welshmen carrying bows and arrows — indeed, for just about any actor in any costume, ever, but especially your ordinary courtier with a rapier and scabbard.
So why revive Cymbeline at all? As noted, the plot shenanigans can be fun — particularly in that long revelation scene. Even though he’s got top billing, Cymbeline is a thankless, mostly reactive role. He grumps around at the beginning, gestures a lot during the battle with the Romans and then works on his double-take through all those revelations, confessing how clueless he’s been through everything. It’s a sign the play’s magic is working if — even though we know what’s coming — we hold our breathe just a little. It’s not T.A. Taylor’s fault that we don’t feel much here. Many of the other actors have been one-note cases throughout; by this time, we know pretty much how they‘ll all respond.
Cymbeline also gets revived — rarely, but still, more than Timon of Athens or King John — because it’s got some great, stagey characters for actors to play. It’s revealing: The Victorian audiences admired the plucky, dutiful Imogen (a sharp though convincingly boyish Joanna Schellenberg) and even the noble Posthumous (an oft-bare-chested and bellowing Chris Hury). But the leading Victorian actors such as Henry Irving and William Macready always opted to play Iachimo, the nasty seducer. They knew where the real entertainment value was.
Unfortunately, Iachimo is underserved here by Justin Locklear. But as the evil queen, Sheila Landahl is fun in all her sexy, grand-dame imperiousness. And Christian Taylor does right by Cloten, Shakespeare’s only swaggering villain who’s also amusingly stupid.
In Cymbeline, virtue may triumph. But it’s the villains who take the cake.
Or the hodge-podge.
Photo credit: Linda Blase