Monday 14 July 2014

Late WS script Cymbeline no tinkling chime

Familiar Bard tropes & then some : Lovers separated by angry parents. Kidnappings. Drug-induced near-death experience. A woman cross-dresser. Multiple mistaken identities. Scheming and machiavellian queen also cross-dressed. Claims of infidelity. Machismo wagers (in Italy, of course). Bedroom trickery. Intimations of cuckoldry. Murder plot. Intricate revenge schemes. An avuncular go-between. A road-trip out of kingly court into the nearby spooky woods. Battlemania -- this time between upstart Britain and Caesarian Rome. And in the end salvation for otherwise doomed antagonists.

Twisty-&-turny, this convoluted and fabulistic fairy-tale romance Cymbeline has its essence captured perhaps best by my late grandmother's wrinkled and wizen'd leather 1922 Funk & Wagnalls' College Standard Dictionary : "Idealistic [writing]...that does not bind itself to verisimilitude or reality, but gives scope to imagination and idealization [including] any extravagant story or series of romantic events or adventures." Extravagant story indeed, unstinted by the merest iota of reason, with an all's well that ends well feel despite the dead bodies.

Bard's last 2014 production that opened Sunday night finds seven actors who perform a swack of roles, 18 in all* in a tale that ships viewers out from London to Rome to Wales and back again to Britain's coast then once more to London for hoisted tankards and venison. At the 250-seat Douglas Campbell theatre over the course of three hours including intermission.

Plot quicky sum-up : The ingenue Princess Imogen (Rachel Cairns) has eloped with her childhood playmate Posthumus (Anton Lipovetsky). This infuriates her evil step-mom the queen (Shawn Macdonald) who wants her boy, King Cymbeline's psycho-boob of a step-son Cloten (also played by A.L.), to marry Imogen so he becomes king in due course. The king (Gerry Mackay) promptly banishes Posthumus, who sails off to Rome to lick his wounds. There he meets Iachimo (Bob Frazer) whose name similarity to Othello's Iago is no accident. Iachimo bets the gullible and proud Posthumus he can bed Imogen and will bring back proof. He pulls off the latter, but not the former, and Posthumus hears cuckold squawks in his head.

It's about Now! that the fairy-tale aspects of this late WS-script start to pile on with the king's early-20's sons who'd been kidnapped as babies helping to defeat the invading Caesarian Italians. They fight cheek-by-jowl alongside their kidnapper foster-Dad. Cross-dresser Imogen, now a traitorous soldier for Rome, gets reunited with Posthumus (her turncoat stint is blithely ignored). And finally the whole merry band repairs "back to London for hoisted tankards and venison" together, even the Iago-lite Iachimo. 

Well, "whole merry band" less the dastardly queen who's conveniently died (sans, shucks, any "Out damn spot!" soliloquy). Also less Cloten-the-clod whose head was chopped off by a step-brother along the way. (Curiously, Cloten was interred to the strains of WS's finest graveside prayer, the one that kicks off "Fear no more the heat o' the sun / Nor the furious winter's rages. / Thou thy worldly task has done..." Surely this was Billy Bard at his ironic best, still, no scholar has suggested such. More on this later.)

How it's structured : Director Anita Rochon makes some keen and clever decisions how to stage this phatasmagorical miasma : decisions that purists may squeam-&-scream at but the folks alongside the Howard Family Stage clapped and cheer'd and standing-o'd their hearts out over on opening night. 

Rochon says in her program notes that her production will ensure it "celebrates overt theatricality" -- check! As well, she says her read of the script is thus : "Transformation is at the heart of this play and it was important to me that we see these changes happen before our eyes" -- check!.  

Virtually all costume changes occur on-stage. When not playing their various roles and reciting lines, the actors for the most part sit mutely and motionless against the upstage back wall unless they're playing background music instruments.

Whole scenes from the original are excised and replaced with expository monologues by the cast. One change that puzzled, however, was the funeral poem piece noted above. In the original, WS wrote it strictly for Cloten and his headless corpse. Rochon has it recited for the Imogen / Fidele character during her sleep-of-the-dead piece in addition to it being for Cloten lying alongside. No question my claim of Shakespeare's irony, here, was vaporized by Rochon by so doing. Not a clanger, just an interesting footnote.

Rochon does not hesitate to have her players play to the audience seated so close, but for the most part she avoids outright slapstick pratfall-y antics i.e. "exaggerated physical activity that exceeds the boundaries of common sense" as Wiki defines it. Rather more a series of sight gags and facial contortions purpose'd for gigglery. 

Cast highlights are, again, many : No question the show-stealer in Cymbeline is Anton Lipovetsky playing both the role of the knightly-but-naive Posthumus as well as his would-be nemesis Cloten (which I take to be English for the Yiddish klutz). Lipovetsky runs the risk of upstaging his comrades with all his eye-popping / toothy grin schticks, but that's what he was directed to do : play to his strengths. On balance his giddy boffo belligerence as Cloten was more convincing than his jilted loverboy riffs as Posthumus.

Next on my list of notable performances was Shawn Macdonald as both Cymbeline's second wife, the queen, as well as Belarius, the previously banished lord, now mountain-man of Wales. My notes scribbled stage-side say this : "Macdonald as the cross-dressing queen is a stereotypic Hollywood gay of yore -- all limp-wristed lisping mincing mannerisms -- but he exudes the perfect perfidy of this part." He added immensely to the audience's fun. His Belarius, by contrast, was fully robust and physical manliness-with-heart, showing off fine comic chops when calling out "Boys!" to have a strategic huddle with them. One would not be faulted in the least for thinking these were two altogether different actors playing the two roles. Hear-hear!

Rachel Cairns was an utterly different and more compleat and nuanced and vigorous femme as Imogen than she was as WS's slightly-wimpy daughter Judith in Equivocation. Her put-down of the sleazy paramour Iachimo was crisp. Her cross-dress to be the boy Fidele convinced. Her final scenes "when all was revealed" were touching in her restoration to be Posthumus' wife once again.

Bob Frazer as Iachimo was a first-rate cad and bully and machismo stud-character. Easy to dislike mightily. A sign of really good acting. Nice turns as one of Cloten's lords, steady and stately as Caius Lucius, too.

Absolutely no reservations whatever about any of the rest of the ensemble -- a crew that works in sync every moment. I'd say the Cymbeline folks are as tight a troupe as the summer's hands-down Bard overall winner, the cast of The Tempest.

Oh, the music, the music, the music : Benjamin Elliott outdoes himself in this production. Mandolin, guitar, conga drum, accordion, a funny oblong nail-box with metal pluck strings, voice choruses -- absolutely rich rich rich addition to this somewhat rambly and convoluted WS script. Nevermind a "picture". Music, too, can be worth 1,000 words. The drone-bits mimicking mournful bagpipes on the accordion during Iachimo's faux-rape scene as well as during Imogen's musical rendition of the funeral poem to the imprisoned Posthumus were simply inspired stagecraft. (Meanwhile Elliott's bit-part as French dandy was worthy of Spamalot.)

Oh the costumes, the costumes, the costumes and other production values : Never quite enough can probably be said about Mara Gottler's costume wizardry in Cymbeline. In her liner notes she makes reference to "a fencing-style uniform in various neutral shades for each actor" having this purpose : "The sparse iconic nature of the costumes will allow the audience to involve itself by supplying the details that underline the identity of each performer." Scarves, animal skins, vests both leather and velvet, swirling diaphanous capes for the royals -- all the add-on take-off switchabilly accoutrements for each part were simply perfect.

All this worked neatly with Pam Johnson's set that featured flip-flop Rome and Britain colour shields to help focus where the action was taking place. The battle scene with rich red Roman satin scarves-on / scarves off to be one side or the other in an instant was a sight. As well, fight director Nicholas Harrison's swordplay in Cymbeline is extensive and well-blocked, well-struck. 

A bit of self-parody or playing for laughs ? : Boiling down WS's myriad characters* to just seven by having the seven don-&-doff symbolic vestments on-stage on-signal is a feat of theatrical originality. By the end of the play the costume changes were seemingly hammed-up to be played for laughs as they occurred more frequently during the denouement / resolution sequences. Probably intended, not sure it was necessary. Just the change sequences qua change sequences worked well enough on their own.

Who gonna like : Cymbeline may be convoluted and complex and storied-out, but it does possess a fairy- and dream-like quality to it that is charming and endearing. As noted above, "...purists may squeam-&-scream...but the folks alongside the Howard Family Stage clapped and cheer'd and standing-o'd their hearts out...on opening night." More accessible fare than its ensemble partner Equivocation, Cymbeline lines up right snugly to The Tempest as what will be the 25th anniversary year's two most memorable productions.

*  *  *  *  *

Cymbeline.  By William Shakespeare (1609). In repertory with Equivocation at the Douglas Campbell Stage tent, Vanier Park, until September 17.

Production team. Directed by Anita Rochon. Scenery design : Pam Johnson. Costume desigh : Mara Gottler.  Lighting design : Alan Brodie.  Composer & Sound design : Benjamin Elliott.  Stage manager : Joanne P.B. Smith. Assistant stage manager : Samara Van Nostrand.  Apprentice Stage Manager : Jennifer Steward.  Fight director : Nicholas Harrison.  Apprentice director : Guy Fauchon.  Choreographer : Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg.

Cast. Anousha Alamian as Pisario / Philario / a Roman captain.  Rachel Cairns as Imogen.  Bob Frazer as Iachimo / General Caius Lucius / a Lord.  Anton Livopetsky as Posthumus / Cloten /  Arviragus.  Shawn Macdonald as Queen / Belarius.  Gerry Mackay as Cymbeline / a gaoler.  Benjamin Elliott as Cornelius / Guiderius / a Frenchman / a lord.

* In my 2,461 page The Annotated Shakespeare edited by A. L. Rowse, the Dramatis Personae for Cymbeline number 24 individual roles -plus- an un-numbered gaggle of "Lords, Ladies, Roman Senators, Tribunes, a Soothsayer, a Dutchman, a Spaniard, Musicians, Officers, Captains, Soldiers, Messengers and other attendants" as well as "Apparitions". For Bard on the Beach in 2014 to reduce all this to a Troupe of Seven says a lot about what theatre in 2014 needs to do to wrest folks from their t.v.'s & Netflix & social media devices to come watch real sanguine breathing drama at work & play !


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