I will admit to being extremely skeptical of Portland Center Stage’s Shakespeare’s Amazing Cymbeline. First of all, anything that’s an “adaptation” puts me a little on edge; those tend to be the ones where the people with strange agendas, incomprehensible “concepts” and artsy ambitions crop up. And then, when I got there and realized that it was going to be done with a grand total of six actors – one of them being the piano-playing storyteller – I was even more concerned. On top of all that, when I saw that the part of the evil stepmother Queen was to be played by a guy, I started sharpening my wit and my tongue in preparation for tearing the whole production apart.
I was wrong. Utterly, completely and totally wrong. The entire production was brilliant, and I loved every moment of it.
Director Chris Coleman (who also adapted the play) obviously started with a love for the play and a huge amount of respect for it. In his adaptation, he didn’t stray from the plot or the words, or twist anything out of alignment. All he did was make the story a little easier to follow by adding the storyteller (that and figure out how to make all the doubling work).
Cymbeline is really a very funny play – as you might expect when Shakespeare trots out the old fairy tale tropes and gives them his signature touch. There’s the evil stepmother Queen; the poison-that-is-not-poison; the princess in disguise; the henchman who is supposed to take the princess out, kill her and bring back a bloody souvenir; the princes who don’t know they’re princes; the slimy villain trying to worm his way into the princess’s affections; the woodsmen living in a cave in the middle of nowhere (i.e. Wales); the girl-dressed-as-a-boy bit; the banished lover; the idiot suitor…. It’s all there, and more. And, as you might expect from something that’s so full of twists and devices, it’s a little hard to follow at times. And when we do follow it, sometimes we forget that it’s all a fairy tale, and therefore doesn’t take itself as seriously as perhaps we think it ought.
That’s where the piano-playing storyteller (played by Michael G. Keck) comes in. With a bit of introduction here, a word or two there, an explanation or reminder of what’s going on judiciously placed, and the ever-present hint that this is a fairy tale, he helped the story along. He reminded us that, yes, it’s OK to laugh; the story is supposed to be funny. And his dry delivery highlighted the absurdity of it all. And as if that wasn’t enough, he provided lovely piano interludes as he narrated.
The rest of the casting was gold, also. With such a small cast, it’s hard to single out which performances I liked best. They were all extremely well done. Especially impressive were those who had to switch back and forth between “British” (more like Irish) and “Italian” accents.
Ryan McCarthy played both Posthumous, Imogen’s banished husband, and Cloten, her repulsive suitor. I wasn’t really sure how that was going to work, until I remembered that Imogen has to somehow mistake Cloten’s headless body for that of her husband. And that’s when I realized just how brilliant the doubling of parts was. Ryan did a very believable job in both parts – making Posthumous sincere (if a little gullible and rash), and Cloten slimy, brash and idiotic. He also played Belarius, the old woodsman who lives with his two “sons” in a cave. The three (Belarius, Arviragius and Guiderius) reminded me for all the world of three of the seven dwarves… and I’m pretty sure that’s what Shakespeare was going for.
Arviragius was played by John San Nicolas, who also played Iachimo (the villain) and the evil Queen. I was skeptical of a guy playing the Queen, but then I realized that having a woman play the queen would mean adding another whole actor to do just the one part, and the casting choice made a lot more sense. And John did an admirable job. The Queen was perhaps a little stiff, but I attribute that more to the costuming than to anything else. John’s Iachimo was cunning, duplicitous and slimy – just what the part calls for. One isn’t supposed to like villains, but I do tend to like it when the baddie is well done, as Iachimo was. It made me wonder what he could do with Edmund in King Lear. In contrast, Arviragius was adorable (in a “Seven Dwarves” kind of way), innocent, eager and hysterical.
Space does not permit me to go into the detail I would like about Kelley Curran (Imogen), Scott Coopwood (Cymbeline, Philario, 1st Lord and Captain), and Danny Wolohan (Pisanio, Frenchman, Caius Lucius, Guiderius). Together they all created an amazing and believable fairy tale world and wove a complex story into a beautiful tapestry – no mean feat for six actors.
But I would be totally remiss if I did not mention the costumes (designed by Jeff Cone), and the amazing work everyone did with the quick changes from character to character. One might think that all the changes and doubling of characters would be distracting, but the whole thing was so artfully done, that I found it rather enhanced the experience than otherwise – for me, at least.
The production runs through April 8th, and I’d highly recommend going, if you can. It’s in the studio theatre way down in the depths of the Armory, so it was a nice, intimate space. I had forgotten that it was general admission… but even so, we managed to get front-row seats. The show is in the round, and actors are entering just about everywhere. I doubt that there were any “bad” seats. Ours turned out to be particularly good, however. And it was definitely worth the money.