Sunday, January 16, 2011

Yield, Rustic Mountaineer!

Last night Mighty Reader and I saw Chamber Cymbeline as performed by the Seattle Shakespeare Company. Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare's last plays, a sprawling romp of a fairy tale set in pre-Christian England with scenes in Italy. It's a bit of a mess, like most of Shakespeare's comedies, but the Seattle Shakespeare folks did a fine job pulling it into something a bit tighter.

Why "Chamber" Cymbeline? I'm thinking that it's a reference to chamber music, which is performed by smaller ensembles. Cymbeline has about 25 characters as written by Shakespeare and even with doubling of roles that's still a lot of cast members and an awful lot of characters for the audience to keep straight. The eight players last night only had to account for about a dozen characters: two "long lost" brothers were combined into one character; two ghosts, a soothsayer and an exiled warrior were combined into one character, and likely other combinations were made as well (this is not one of the plays with which we were overly familiar, so Mighty Reader and I had a look at the text when we got back home because that's just the sort of folks we are). Anyway, the combinations of characters worked, and the doubling of the hero/villain parts by the same actor was brilliantly done. Cloten is one one of Shakespeare's most entertaining rogues.

Since this is a comedy, there's the usual transvestism subplot where someone puts on a pair of pants and a hat and suddenly people she's known her whole life can't recognize her beyond the "you know, you look familiar" level. Oh, William, you were such a card.

Cymbeline is a mashup of three stories: the life of Cymbeline, a 1st-century English king; the love story of Imogen and Posthumus which is an Italian story from at least the 12th century; and of course Snow White, which was a well-known fairy tale in Shakespeare's England. So you've got pagan gods, war with the Roman Empire, an evil stepmother, rustics taking in a girl to cook and clean for them, and poison(!) alongside deception of good Englishmen by those wily and deceitful foreigners (damn you, Italian swine!). Typical Shakespearean riffing, in other words.

None of Shakespeare's comedies are equal to his tragedies and Cymbeline is not a work of any real depth. It's violent comic melodrama with broad sexual humor, asides to the audience, clear-cut white hats and black hats and a denouement that, really, goes on a bit too long but still: if you come for the clever wordplay (because it's still Shakespeare, after all) you will not be disappointed. The plot is absurd but even so, it's a rollicking good time and the actors are all quite fine.

This is not one of those productions of Shakespeare that really tries to "do something new" or "update" the play; it's an abridgement that focuses on plot and humor and the director was right to push the contrasts between the comic and tragic moments, letting the actors make the most of each. And even one of Shakespeare's lesser works is going to be better than any Hollywood film you could opt to see instead, so bring your ducats to the Seattle Shakespeare Company's production of Chamber Cymbeline and don't forget to come early enough to have one of their specialty cocktails in the commemorative martini glasses.

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