Two Productions of Cymbeline:
The American Shakespeare Center at the Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Virginia. 7 February- 29 March, 2008.
The Alabama Shakespeare Festival, at the Carolyn Blount Theatre, Montgomery, Alabama. 25 April- 22 June, 2008.
Middle Tennessee State University
Kevin Donovan. "Two Productions of Cymbeline: The American Shakespeare Center at the Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Virginia; The Alabama Shakespeare Festival, at the Carolyn Blount Theatre, Montgomery, Alabama.". Early Modern Literary Studies 14.2/Special Issue 17 (September, 2008) 21.1-13 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/14-2/revdonov.html>.
American Shakespeare Center: Dramaturgy by Sarah Ellen Enloe and Christina Scott Sayer. With Rick Blunt (Pisanio), Benjamin Curns (Cloten), Allison Glenzer (Queen, Philarmonus, Ghost), John Harrell (Iachimo), Bob Jones (Caius Lucius, 2nd Lord), James Keegan (Belarius, Jupiter, 1st Gentleman), Sara Landis (Cornelius, 1st Lord), David Loar (Cymbeline, Ghost), Tyler Moss (Guiderius, Philario, 2nd Gentleman, Ghost), Gregory Jon Phelps (Posthumus Leonatus), Joann Sacco (Arviragus, Helen, Ghost), Alyssa Wilmoth (Imogen).
Alabama Shakespeare Festival: Directed by Geoffrey Sherman. Set designed by Robert Wolin. Costumes designed by Elizabeth Novak. Lighting designed by Phil Monat assisted by Tom Rodman. Music composed by James Conely, orchestrated by Thom Jenkins. Sound designed by Richelle Thompson. Dramaturgy by Susan Willis. Movement by Denise Gabriel. Fights directed by Jason Armit. With Graham Allen (Singer), Larry Bull (Pisanio), Chet Carlin (Cornelius), Avery Clark (Guiderius), Rodney Clark (Cymbeline), Anne-Marie Cusson (1st Lady), Matt D’Amico (Iachimo), Sarah Dandridge (Imogen), David Dortch (Cloten), Jerry Ferraccio (Sicilius), Alison Frederick (Mother of Posthumus), Greg Foro (1st Lord), Adriana Gaviria (2nd Lady), Nathan T. Lange (Arviragus), Nick Lawson (2nd Lord), Anthony Marble (Posthumus Leonatus), Paul Nicholas (Caius Lucius), Matt Renskers (Frenchman, British Captain), Chris Roe (Gaoler), Greg Thornton (Belarius), Sarah Walker Thornton (Helen), Christopher T. VanDijk (Philario, Roman Captain), Diana Van Fossen (Queen), Patrick Vest (Jupiter), Afton C. Williamson (Soothsayer).
- Cymbeline is one of the more rarely produced of Shakespeare’s plays, so its staging by two different companies within months of each other in the same region of the United States – no doubt unprecedented – was for me an irresistible attraction. Happily, the performances by the American Shakespeare Center and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival both demonstrated the theatrical vitality of this strange and, for readers, seemingly impossible Romano-British, historical-pastoral-comical-tragical, absurd and beautiful play.
- The production by the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) at their reconstruction of the King’s Men’s Blackfriars Playhouse, was staged as part of the 2008 “Actors’ Renaissance” season, which runs from January to March. Plays in this season were produced without a director and without designated costume designs, the actors drawing on in-house resources. As with all ASC productions, there was a good deal of doubling by the cast of twelve. Having enjoyed a number of effective performances without a director and with stripped-down visual resources by troupes organized by the Actors from the London Stage program over the years (and having suffered through enough ill-conceived theme-driven productions that the phrase “director’s concept” makes my heart sink), the ASC ensemble mode suited me fine.
- Productions at the Blackfriars tend to be stripped down in their use of scenic resources in keeping with the ASC’s commitment to re-creating Renaissance performance conditions (with the notable exception of employing women actors). As in Shakespeare’s Blackfriars, there is no dimming of house lights – souvenirs in the gift shop boast “We do it with the lights on” – resulting in a markedly intimate relationship between actors and audience and among audience members as well. At times patrons in the front row were mere inches from the actors. As at the original Blackfriars there were four entr’acte breaks. The stage is bare, the frons scenae of wood painted to look like marble. Two doors flank a central curtained discovery space through which Imogen’s bed, Iachimo’s chest, and Cymbeline’s throne were thrust onto the playing space. The curtained-off central opening also designated the cave where Belisarius and Cymbeline’s lost sons, Arviragus and Guiderius, dwelled (the curtains always remained closed, as there was no need to represent the cave visually).
- A particular strength of the production was its brisk and energetic pace: in the transitions from one scene to the next, the new characters’ entrances often overlapped slightly with the previous scenes’ characters’ exits (through different doors). Alyssa Wilmoth was impressive in the role of Imogen, skillful in conveying the character’s brains, spiritedness, and courtesy as well as evoking the role’s pathos and lyricism. She effected an especially fine tension in I.vi, the scene in which Iachimo tries to persuade her of Posthumus’s infidelity and so to seduce her, as she was pulled contrariwise by her wish to be generous in assessing Iachimo (and indirectly Posthumus) and her dawning moral outrage. Later in the play her awakening to discover Cloten’s headless corpse inevitably drew some laughs, but she quickly brought the audience to tears with her convincing demonstration of grief. This was a notable instance of the effectiveness of universal lighting at the Blackfriars, the audience members being fully cognizant of their own and their fellows’ emotional vulnerability.
- Other memorable performances include John Harrell, a notably fine comic actor who starred as Volpone in the current season, as Iachimo. There was some uneasy laughter in the scene in which he invades Imogen’s chamber and examines her body, heightened by some questionable extra-textual action as Iachimo lifted the covers to peer salaciously lower than the mole “cinque-spotted” on Imogen’s breast. Certainly the audience was made to feel uncomfortably complicit in Iachimo’s voyeurism.
- Cloten was played by Benjamin Curns, in a vaguely eighteenth-century costume, including a poodle-ish wig tied back in a club, a wig later brandished – and momentarily donned in a mocking gesture – by Guiderius after he had beheaded him (the head itself remaining invisible within a rucksack). The stripped-down style of presentation also affected the scene of Posthumus’s dream, in which he is visited by the ghosts of his parents and by the god Jupiter. The ghosts wore blank white masks which covered three quarters of their faces, Jupiter a gold mask beneath a gold Roman helmet and a cloak of black patterned material that appeared to be of the same design as the curtains hanging before the discovery space, through which he entered (there was no descent upon an eagle).
- The contrast between Guiderius (Tyler Moss) and Arviragus (Joann Sacco) was less pronounced than in some critics’ discussions of the roles, which tend to emphasize Guiderius’s physicality and aggressiveness on the one hand and Arviragus’s gentleness on the other. Even though – or perhaps because – the latter’s “wench-like words” were spoken by a woman, the two seemed to display a comparable degree of male adolescent swagger. The inevitable laughter evoked by the series of revelations in the final scene was especially notable when Guiderius and Arviragus seemed to recognize their supposedly dead companion “Fidele” but were delayed in expressing their recognition.
- At times, though, the farrago of costuming styles was distracting. In the wager scene (I.iv), with its representatives of various nationalities, Posthumus appeared in doublet and hose, the Frenchman in a three-piece suit and a fedora, the (mute) Dutchman – or Spaniard? – in black trousers, a red shirt, and a wig reminiscent of Rod Stewart in the 1970s, while Philario wore a sword-and-sandals costume reminiscent of gladiator movies. It was hard not to think of the play’s later reference to “a silly habit” (V.iii.86). Likewise Doctor Cornelius wore army fatigue pants and boots and a bandana do-rag with a hospital-scrubs top, even at her first appearance, before there was any hint of a military element in the role. Perhaps the players were flaunting Cymbeline’s willingness to flirt with absurdity in its tragicomic mixture of emotional registers–lyrical, satirical, tragical, pastoral, etc.–as well as in its notable anachronisms. Samuel Johnson long ago complained of “the confusion of the names and manners of different times”; on the other hand, the play’s most recent editor finds heterogeneity, hybridity, and miscegenation to be integral features of Cymbeline’s political vision (Butler, 53).
- The Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF) produced the play in a very different theatrical environment, with a lavish use of scenic effects. Spotlights served to emphasize spoken asides. The Ghosts of Posthumus’s parents arose from a trap door which had earlier been the means of bringing on Imogen in her bed. Jupiter, wearing a silver mask, descended on (or behind) an emblematically rendered two-dimensional eagle. Robert Wolin’s set decor evoked a picturesque, antique Roman flavor which, according to the director’s notes, was inspired by the marble architecture seen in some of the paintings of Alma-Tadema, which were said to have inspired Elizabeth Novak’s costume designs as well. The set was dominated by a marmoreal architectural structure located upstage and to the left, consisting of steps forming concentric circles and a platform. Stage right featured six columns (plus two additional broken columns). For the scenes set in Rome, a partially draped arch dropped down from the flies, and tiled roofs and arched windows became visible through a scrim. For the forest scenes, green netting descended, becoming foliage for the columns–now suggesting tree trunks. Royal drapery hanging from emblematic crossed spears descended for the final court scene. The location of the cave was indicated by a ramp located downstage left. Novak’s costume designs generally evoked a classical setting. The women in particular looked like Roman matrons though the British Queen wore a headband suggestive of an exotic barbarian. Romans wore tunics and sandals, Britons tunics and particolored trews. Cloten wore a Celtic torque around his neck. Arviragus, Guiderius and Belarius wore rough skins, had long matted hair and beards, and carried spears, bows and arrows. Roman military costumes were conventional; the Britons wore conical helmets with long horsehair strands hanging down the back. The Soothsayer, played by a woman (Afton C. Williamson) looked vaguely Egyptian.
- The play opened with two court ladies (rather than the Folio’s gentlemen), who entered playing blindman’s buff and then performed a dance to the rhythm of striking sticks which they held in their hands. They then drew a circle on the ground demarcating the area where they sat and played, and delivered the play’s opening dialogue. The sticks that had served as rhythm instruments became trays with pebbles, like those used in the African counting game mankala. With the arrival of the queen onstage, the women exited quickly, suggesting the malign influence cast by this fairy-tale villainess. The effect was to emphasize the ludic as well as the magical, dreamlike atmosphere of the dramatic romance. The drawing of a circle was later echoed visually in Arviragus and Guiderius’s funeral rites for Fidele when they traced a circle around the “corpse” with a dagger.
- Sarah Dandridge played a very high-spirited Imogen, in the early scenes almost but not quite hoydenish. She was especially moving in III.iv, in which Imogen, learning of Posthumus’s aroused hatred toward her, implores Pisanio to kill her. Her performance was moving as well in her discovery of the headless corpse of Cloten in Posthumus’s clothes, despite a questionable directorial decision. At first this scene brought a few titters from the audience–especially at her line “Where is thy head?” – but these soon stopped as the onstage action shifted to grotesque horror. Horrified groans were heard when Imogen dipped her hands in the neck stump to “Give color to my pale cheek with thy blood . . .” As Roger Warren notes in his account of the theatrical history of the play (46-51), this is a performance option that has been followed in a number of productions but remains controversial. Helen Mirren did so in the BBC televised version, and the Oxford Complete Works adds a stage direction specifying this action, but Warren argues for the superiority of having Imogen merely embrace the corpse.
Other performers deserving praise include Anthony Marble as a moving Posthumus, who didn’t shrink from the extravagance of the speeches in II.iv – his deranged misogynist outburst – or in V.i, when he repents of his murderous rage toward Imogen. Matt D’Amico was also effective as Iachimo. Rodney Clark played a Cymbeline who began seeming ill and somewhat decrepit, tottering with the aid of a cane, but became strikingly more hale and vigorous with the disappearance of the Queen, presumably no longer ingesting her poisons, whether literal or moral. The wisecracking Second Lord was played broadly for laughs by Nick Lawson, who had a habit, for instance, of rushing onstage as if late for his cue.
- There were some loud laughs during the final scene’s rapid series of revelations, especially during the line delivered by Dr. Cornelius (Chet Carlin): “O gods! / I left out one thing which the Queen confessed.” Laughter was heard as well when Belarius (Greg Thornton) gestured rather broadly in an attempt to suppress Guiderius’s revelation of the death of Cloten. Yet the prevailing atmosphere was one of joy and wonder, appropriate to the mythmaking and romantic dimensions of the play larger action.
- In sum, both productions did justice to Cymbeline, though in complementary and even contradictory ways. The ASC production in the Blackfriars showed the play’s power to move in a theatrical mode almost entirely consisting of the spoken words and gestures of actors in close proximity to an audience. The ASF production showed that these essential elements could be enhanced by scenic theatrical resources to heighten the dreamlike element of fantasy in the story though perhaps with some loss of immediacy and intimacy in the relation of actors to audience. In any case, it has been a most rare privilege “To see this gracious season.”
- Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
- Butler, Martin, ed. Cymbeline. By William Shakespeare. New York: Cambridge UP, 2005.
- Warren, Roger, ed. Cymbeline. By William Shakespeare. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).