By William Shakespeare
Directed by Tina Packer
“There is no more tribute to be paid.”
The current production of Shakespeare’s late play “Cymbeline” at the Tina Packer Playhouse at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, is the third one I’ve seen. It is also, I think, the shortest edition I’ve seen and the one with the smallest cast of players. There are nine company members in the current production while there were 11 back in 2011 when the company last delivered up this show–then not for review as it was a student version running well over three hours. In 1971 when I first saw it in New York City at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Tom Aldredge played the title role as a doddering version of Lear and Sam Waterston was maniacal and Hitlerian as Cloten. Jane White brought her “Once Upon a Mattress” evil queen with her into the queen’s role and William Devane was the taunting Iachimo whose bet sets off the main plot. I remember being amused by it all but never moved.
In 2011 this company offered a student production for three performances and it was uneven yet captivating with lots of doubled roles. For a relatively unproduceable Shakespeare play, it has been done a lot in recent years – 2003 and 2015 – but this is the first major production by this company and the last play in the author’s complete works to be directed by Tina Packer, the company’s founder and guiding light. It’s time she got to it and it’s the perfect play to use for this completion for it takes on images, concepts and plot points from a great many other of Shakespeare plays, a sort of mash-up of plays where none emerge as primary.
The cast of this edition are all very good players and each brings some special qualities to the proceedings. A few might well have been saved for a revival in five or six years and not shoved into the difficult and complicated dialogue so soon in their Shakespeare careers.
Everyone doubles in this play. Some play three or four characters and many take on the “extra” roles of soldiers in the battle scenes. Bella Merlin, who is very strong as the evil queen, also plays Aviragus, the younger son of Belarius – actually the younger son of Cymbeline but that is a plot point that only is made clear late in the second half. Ella Loudon takes on the other son role while also playing the heroine’s “companion/servant” Helen. Both women are brilliant with the Cornwall – I think – accents, thick and nearly brogue-like. Jason Asprey as the nasty prince Cloten also takes on the Soothsayer near the end of the play. Unlike the two women, he seems incapable of a second voice or accent and so his late character seems to be played by his other late character, which is too bad.
As heroine and hero, Imogen and Posthumus, Tamara Hickey does a perfectly marvelous job and Thomas Brazzle is exuberant and forceful though less successful in delivering his lines intelligibly. He often seems lost in his words, and he has far too many of them far too quickly and far too often. The fault here is the author’s rather than the actor’s; he just has too much to say and it becomes awkward.
Hickey is lovely as the princess whose marriage is ruined by an angry and jealous father. She has a long wait before she can don boys’ clothing and go out into the world and follow both her heart and her need for adventure. Once she does, the play moves away from the truly tragic into the really comic. When adopted by Belarius’ family as a third brother, the comedy hits a true high when both brothers fall in love with their adopted brother, as does their father, making this perhaps one of the first really “gay” comedies in the English language. Hickey is a fine young boy and also a high-spirited, two-fisted young lady who can certainly hold her own in a street fight.
Cymbeline’s sons have been stolen from him in infancy and so he is a much more protective father to Imogen than is necessary. It is his jealous nature that sparks so much of the trouble in the play, from his wife’s poisonous plottings – shades of “Snow White” – his step-sons aspirations, his brother’s unfaithfulness, to his Roman allies’ conquering instincts. Shakespeare let his historical needs get in the way of a good, romantic comedy and, as the play swells out to embrace all of his forms, it becomes clear that his need to show off a bit comes into play and nearly destroys a good storyline with the excesses of success. He would write only three more plays after this one with two of them, “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest,” among his great works.
Limiting herself to a cast of nine, there are some visual difficulties for Packer, the director, to overcome, and she does that by simply having actors change costumes and wigs on stage, as her young companies often do. As a result there are some very funny moments when a complete change is impossible or a costume gets caught up in the physical handicap of being manipulated. At one point returning to the title role, Epstein stood in full view, a stage crew member holding a mirror, while he adjusted his wig to make it fit properly. A few times during these awkward changes, the cast actually broke up, letting laughter at their situation take over.
This is actually covered by the staging of the play’s opening where various actors first don their costumes on stage while doing very normal modern things before they shift gears into this play’s own reality and setting.
Jonathan Epstein is especially good at these transitions, as is Deaon Griffin-Pressley as Pisanio and Nigel Gore as Belarius, Cornelius and Caius Lucius. Epstein’s turn as the god Jupiter plays to the magnificence of the winged god. Similarly, and at the opposite end of the human scale, Gore’s Belarius is a gentle warrior who guards his two charges, his “sons,” with special care.
Tyler Kinney’s costumes provide a true glimpse into the world of fairy tales and history. Kris Stone’s elemental lines, including three trapdoorways, give the show both a modern look and a fine representation of ancient England. Deb Sullivan’s lighting design provides a lot of variation in the look for the show.
Packer has taken this complicated play and reduced some of its indifferent moments to rubble, leaving the cleaner lines of the basic plot room to expand as needed. Most of her actors have apparently worked well with her, giving finely tuned interpretations. The movement choreography by Kristen Wold has allowed major battles to be waged with a handful of players and Wold should be congratulated on her way with an exit during the battle scenes.
Tackling this play, including editing it cleanly, is an achievement, one that Packer has undertaken nobly and completed successfully. It is a journey that seems to compel directors more than it does actors –there are no “great” and memorable speeches and very few statements that inspire with their poetry. Nevertheless, for true theater maniacs, devotees and professionals it is a necessary, must-see experience. Even with two others under my belt, I would not have missed this for anything.
Cymbeline plays at Shakespeare and Company’s Tina Packer Playhouse, 70 Kemble St., Lenox, Massachusetts, through Sunday, Aug. 6. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (413) 637-3353 or go online to shakespeare.org.