As the first part of Arizona Repertory Theatre's Cymbeline closed, I thought, "This is great! Why isn't Cymbeline performed as often as other Shakespeare plays?"
Then the second half began, and I remembered why.
ART does as solid and creative a job with its production as one could possibly wish, but there's no getting around the difficulties in the script.
Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare's later plays (probably first performed around 1609-1610). As such, it is hard not to see Cymbeline as a composite of other, more successful ideas from previous Shakespearean efforts.
There's young love and mistaken death, just as in Romeo and Juliet. There's misplaced jealousy created by a malicious outsider, just as in Othello. There's a scheming, ambitious queen, just as in Macbeth. The trouble is, in Cymbeline these plots are stitched together awkwardly and the play feels overburdened.
But let's start with the beginning, the part that left me feeling enthused about the play. The director of this UA production, Brent Gibbs, has sensibly cut the play down. Acts 1 and 2 are compressed together to form Part 1.
Princess Imogen (Brooke Hartnett), daughter of the British king, Cymbeline (theater prof Kevin Black), has fallen in love with Posthumus (Frank Camp).
Yet her father's wife, the Queen (played with deliciously evil verve by Sammie Lideen), wants Imogen to marry her son, Cloten, (played with great bimbo charm by Joey Rudman). So the Queen conspires to buy poison but the potion she gets is not actually poison (this becomes important later on).
Poor Posthumus is banished to Italy, where he meets up with slimy Iachimo (Micah Bond). For reasons that are unclear, Posthumus agrees to let Iachimo attempt to seduce Imogen, to prove Imogen's fidelity. Although he fails in this scheme, icky Iachimo spies on Imogen, gathering enough personal intel to convince Posthumus that Imogen has indeed betrayed him.
This is juicy stuff, and well acted by the student and faculty performers. They are helped by tight direction and a well-oiled technical staff. The set, designed by Jacklyn Fitzgerald, is an appropriately vague structure, full of hidden trapdoors and openings that readily suggest the play's varied locales, from a castle to a cave in the woods.
Gibbs and costume designer Sandahl Masson have chosen to set the show more or less in Europe during the early 20th century. This works well, allowing for a sense of historical distance but keeping the characters recognizable. It's easy to tell the good guys—dressed like British soldiers—from the bad guys, who are mostly Germanic-looking blondes in forbidding black leather.
But after intermission, in Part 2 —a compressed version of Shakespeare's acts 3 through 5—the plot starts to slow down the production.
Imogen disguises herself as boy and flits off to the woods, where she meets a woodsman and his two sons. When loutish Cloten comes along, one of the sons chops off his head. Then Boy-Imogen takes the Queen's poison, which she thinks is medicine, and appears to die. The woodsmen bury her in a grave with the beheaded Cloten.
Are you feeling confused? It's OK. It's going to get weirder.
Imogen isn't dead, and when she wakes, she's with a headless corpse whom she thinks is Posthumus. And then poor Hartnett has to deliver one of the most unintentionally hilarious lines ever written: "O Posthumus! alas,/ Where is thy head? where's that? Ay me! where's that?"
Hartnett is a fine princess, and she shines particularly in the comedic cross-dressing scenes, but she can't do much with that speech. This marked the first, but certainly not the last, moment in the evening when an ostensibly serious moment produced guffaws from the audience.
The accidental hilarity reaches a pitch in the denouement, when all the loose ends have to be tied up. With all of the cast onstage, each character is given a chance for an important reveal, leading to a complex and implausible happy ending.
This wrapping up is so lengthy that even Cymbeline has to acknowledge that the actors don't have time to explain it all, saying, "...but nor the time nor place/ Will serve our long inter'gatories."
In the wrong hands, Cymbeline could be quite painful. But director Gibbs and his cast tackle the show with verve and gusto. As resident fight director, Gibbs includes a fantastic battle sequence, complete with an exploding grenade. Oh, yeah, there's also a plot about a war between the Britons and the Romans—I told you, a lot of stuff happens).
The cast members seem to be having fun, shining most brightly in the comic scenes, and selling the drama as best they can, often with tongues planted firmly in their cheeks.
Seeing that many university theater programs do a mediocre job with Shakespeare's best work, it's a great compliment to ART that it can tackle such a difficult script and pull it off so well.