What to make of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline? The title page of my Yale Shakespeare version calls it “The Tragedy of Cymbeline.” In a seminar called Classicism in the Drama at college, we learned the Aristotelian definition:
“A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.”
Hmmmm…google “Shakespeare tragedies” and you will not see Cymbeline listed among them. The title character doesn’t die and there is a happy ending, even though some characters meet grim, well-deserved ends. So, if one simply must categorize, call it tragi-comedy.
In director Cylan Brown’s highly entertaining version of the show, produced by Shakespeare by the Sea, there is far more comedy than tragedy and even one of the grimmer deaths is pure slapstick. Set in the time of the Romans, (there is even an envoy from Caesar sent to bring the rebellious Britons back into the Empire), Cymbeline (Steven Humphreys) is king. He has a scheming second wife, listed only as Queen (Andria Kozica), with an oafish son, Cloten (Bryson “B. J.” Allman). In order to advance her status, the Queen (wicked, of course) wants her son married off to the king’s lovely daughter, Imogen (Stacy Snyder). But Imogen secretly marries the humble Posthumous (Christopher Dietrick), who is subsequently exiled. The king has another woe. His two sons, brothers to Imogen, were stolen when they were toddlers of two and three years. All this is revealed in the first sixty-eight lines of exposition. Whew!
The comedy strikes home when Cloten steps on stage. An arrogant, clueless nitwit, he imagines himself desirable because of status as the queen’s son. He is, in fact, as played with splendid comic invention by the charismatic Mr. Allman, hilariously inept.
While in exile, Posthumous falls into company with an amiable crew that includes a lecherous viper named Iachimo (played with style and humor by director Cylan Brown, stepping in for the absent Dorian Taylor). Posthumous boasts of the beauty and fidelity of Imogen to the point that he is inveigled into a wager with Iachimo. So sure is he of her inviolability, he bets that Iachimo will be unable to seduce her, wagering the priceless ring given to him by his wife as stakes against ten thousand ducats. This major subplot is the source of much stirring passion, wrongheadedness, and misunderstandings.
Of course, we must catch up with the subplot of stolen princes. Spirited away by the banished lord Belarius (Michael Ring), and raised by him in a cave in the wilds, the princes, now young adults named Guidarius (Iyan Evans) and Arviragus (Ryan Knight), are rambunctious, enthusiastic guys who hunt in the forest for food and add more comedy to the show. Iyan Evans fights with Cloten (too much story to tell how that came to pass) in a duel that is screamingly funny right up to and beyond the rather grim outcome.
With the circularity of true comedy, at the end, wrongs are righted, the lost are restored and the wicked punished. And the audience well pleased.
The only flaw worth mentioning is the tendency of some performers to rattle off their speeches at high speed. Pick up cues by all means, and keep the show moving, but let us hear the words and meaning clearly.
The show is handsomely produced with a set (Aaron Jackson) that is workable and attractive, and costumes (Allison Dillard) that are pleasing to the eye and often sumptuous. In an outdoor setting, sound can sometimes be a problem; it is definitely a not a problem with this production. Sound technician Aidan Gould makes sure of that.
Shakespeare by the Sea will continue to perform Cymbeline in repertory with Othello through August 20 at venues throughout Los Angeles and Orange Counties. And don’t forget. ADMISSION IS FREE!
Dates and locations can be found at http://www.shakespearebythesea.org/wp/locations/.