Five minutes before you hear the opening lines of Cymbeline, Allison Glenzer has exposed the ending. Just ask John Harrell, who conspiratorially whispers to the audience, “spoiler alert!” However, her revelation isn’t entirely unwarranted, as it arrives thanks to Harrell’s (feigned) confusion over whether Cymbeline itself is a comedy, history, or tragedy, the three types of Shakespearean plays with which most of us are familiar. Much to Harrell’s disbelief and our delight, Cymbeline is revealed as a romance, but not the sort of romantic comedy with which we modern playgoers might be familiar. No, instead, this is one of Shakespeare’s late romances, and an education is apparently necessary for the bewildered Harrell (and for us, too).
As Glenzer goes on to explain (courtesy of Wikipedia, who, I must admit, is my source here as well), a Shakespearean romance is “a more complex kind of comedy,” one that contains four key characteristics: 1) A redemptive plotline with a happy ending involving the re-uniting of long-separated family members; 2) Magical and other fantastical elements; 3) The presence of pre-Christian, mask-like figures; and 4) A mixture of courtly and pastoral scenes.1 With so many complex and divergent elements, it’s hardly a surprise that a play like Cymbeline defies categorization; as director Jim Warren tells us, “it’s a romantic drama with a thwarted love story, it’s a comic melodrama with some hairpin turns, it’s a ‘dramedy’ without a canned laugh track.” And with so many requirements and so much material to explore, it’s no surprise that the American Shakespeare Center’s talented repertory company is the one to take on the challenge with confidence, heart, and a balanced sense of proportion.
When a play offers its audience so much complexity, it is the opening scene’s daunting task to share an extraordinary amount of exposition in a remarkably brief period of time. As a result, when René Thornton, Jr. and Ronald Peet take the stage for act one, scene one, it’s no surprise that there’s a great deal of information to disseminate. As the speaker, Thornton neither hurries nor drags through the information; he trusts that we are listening, yet checks in to make sure that specific names and events have been understood. However, though I find myself listening to Thornton, I am watching Peet—an attentive listener who, through his character, asks all the questions I want to and whose reactions to the news shared confirm for me that I’ve understood the material as well. By the time the scene is over, Thornton has thoroughly caught us up to speed on the hot-headed king, his kidnapped sons, his rebellious daughter, his evil wife, and her foppish son. The rollercoaster has been constructed, and now we’re just invited to enjoy the ride.
The central conflict of the play rests on the forbidden marriage between the king’s daughter, Imogen (Abbi Hawk) and her beloved Posthumous Leonatus (Grant Davis). However, King Cymbeline’s banishment of Leonatus to Europe isn’t their only problem; there’s the villainous Iachimo (Benjamin Curns) who schemes to come between them and also the tenacious Cloten (John Harrell), whose greatest desire is not for Imogen as much as for her proximity to the British crown. In these two villains we find the opposition of comedy and tragedy that marks so much of this play. As he sneaks about Imogen’s bedchamber, Curns’ dark and seething Iachimo makes our skin crawl and nearly causes us to rise out of our seats to shake the innocent princess awake. And yet, when Curns himself appears in the musicians’ balcony at the start of the interlude to ravish us with his lounge rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep,” we are appropriated as his accomplices, for we can hardly help but laugh and cheer at his unapologetic delight in his villainous ways. On the other hand, Harrell’s Cloten is a ridiculously narcissistic, over-preening dandy, one whose overwrought sword and affected vocal inflections are met with raucous laughter from the first moment he steps on stage. We don’t fear him as a villain; rather, we delight in how seriously he takes himself. And yet, when a bloody bag containing Cloten’s head appears on stage a few acts into the play, we will wonder where the humor has gone, finding that it has been replaced by surprised horror. Though we might not have liked this villain, he amused us at least and charmed us at best, so we’re not completely sold on the fact that his beheading was deserved. In fact, if anyone deserved such a fate, it would be his unquestionably evil mother.
Tracy Hostmyer plays three queens this season at the American Shakespeare Center, but, in her role in this play, there is no doubt that her motives are impure and her designs are self-serving. This queen has two faces: the one she paints on for cajoling her husband and step-daughter, and the one she reveals to us, the audience she arrogates as her coconspirators. From the first scene in the play, Hostmyer makes use of her asides as a way of drawing us into her net, forcing us to learn her plans, yet not giving us the power to stop them. In a frustrating paradox, we empathize with poor King Cymbeline, who has fallen for his Queen’s sugar-coated act, yet we want to rage against his ridiculous inability to see through her machinations. In her portrayal of the Queen, though, Hostmyer doesn’t reduce herself to the fairy tale caricature of the wicked step-mother; instead, she creates a dynamic character who we simultaneously despise and relish as she infects the lives of those around her in her attempt to separate Imogen from her love, Posthumous Leonatus.
Even as the villains of Cymbeline perhaps best hold our attention, the young heroine is the one who gains a surprising hold over our hearts. In the first few scenes, Abbi Hawk’s Imogen seems perhaps too young, too naïve to engage our sympathies. However, the more obstacles she overcomes, the more she is willing to risk for her love, the more she gains a foothold with the audience. By the time she wakes in the forest only to find a headless body by her side—a body she assumes belongs to her beloved—her horror is transferred to the audience. Despite the fact that we know the “secret”—that this is not Posthumous at all—we cannot help but mourn with her as we watch her startled face, trembling hands, and shocked eyes. Hawk’s Imogen grows up before our eyes on the stage, and, as she matures, so does our desire to see her achieve her happy ending, the one we already knew was coming.
Since Harrell and Glenzer spoiled it, since we do know that there will be a redemptive ending where everyone will be reunited, the question is not “what will happen” but “how will it happen.” Answering the latter question—particularly in such a delightfully complex play—is perhaps the American Shakespeare Center’s greatest strength. Because ASC is a repertory company, this group of actors has already been working together for several months. They know each other well, so their interactions are genuine, even in the midst of a play that is such an unexpected hodge-podge of genres and characters. Though the play is titled Cymbeline, the ownership of the action doesn’t rest on a single actor’s shoulders; instead, they share the stage with each other—and with their audience. And so the audience is the newest participant in the Cymbeline cast, the one that the actors don’t quite trust yet, the one that they are still testing out. As a result, on the opening night of Cymbeline, the small moments of hesitancy on stage can be chalked up to a repertory that is getting to know its newest member. But our role is an easy one: they have welcomed us into their story, and they only ask that we’re ready to go on the ride.
Cymbeline continues at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, through November 25, 2012.
1 Wikipedia contributors. “William Shakespeare’s late romances.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 10 Jun. 2012. Web. 23 Sep. 2012.